BEIJING – Trials started this week of Chinese lawyers and legal rights activists who were detained in July last year and charged with subversion for their attempts to bring attention to abuses and demand government accountability.
They include lawyer Zhou Shifeng and three activists associated with his Fengrui Law Firm, among the best known in the field broadly known as "rights defending." The firm has pursued numerous sensitive cases and represented outspoken critics of the ruling Communist Party. Others, including disbarred lawyer Li Heping, remain in detention, their legal status a continuing mystery.
A look at some of the most prominent cases taken up by lawyers and activists now in custody:
CONTAMINATED BABY FORMULA
In 2008, Fengrui represented victims in a contaminated infant formula scandal that the government sought to gloss over amid preparations to hold the Summer Olympics in Beijing. Around 300,000 children were sickened and six died from kidney failure caused by the adulteration of the formula with the chemical melamine. Fengrui represented victims' families in cases against Sanlu, the maker of the formula and one of China's biggest dairies. The firm's work drew exactly the sort of attention that the government was hoping to avoid, further undermining public confidence in food safety and the leadership's commitment to candor and accountability.
FALUN GONG FOLLOWERS
Fengrui also represented members of the Falun Gong meditation sect that the government has relentlessly suppressed since banning it as an "evil cult" in 1999. Group leaders have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms and ordinary followers locked up as threats to social order. As recently as last year, one of Fengrui's lawyers was beaten by court officers after he objected to being prevented from communicating with his Falun Gong clients. That lawyer, Wang Quanzhang, was also detained last year and charged with subversion of state power in January.
Outspoken artist, blogger, filmmaker and designer Ai Weiwei hired Fengrui in 2011, when he was slapped with a $2.4 million tax evasion suit that was widely seen as an attempt to intimidate him into silence on political issues. That followed Ai's three-month detention without charge at a government guesthouse where he was under constant supervision and repeatedly interrogated. Ai lost the case and was largely confined to his Beijing compound before his passport was unexpectedly returned last year and he left for Europe. Despite his experience, Ai remains as outspoken as ever, frequently discussing his detention and the dark side of China's burgeoning security state.
Fengrui also represented Ilham Tohti, an outspoken scholar from the Uighur minority group who was sentenced to life in prison in 2014 on charges of fanning ethnic hatred, advocating violence and instigating terror through his classroom teaching and a website on Uighur issues. His appeal was rejected two months later at a hearing held inside a detention center in the far western region of Xinjiang, in violation of a normal judicial procedure, his lawyers said. The professor had long been a critic of China's polices toward Uighurs and Xinjiang and his sentence was the most severe in a decade for illegal political speech.
Blind since childhood, Chen Guangcheng obtained a working knowledge of the law and embarked on a career of activism on behalf of the disabled and fellow villagers in Shandong province. In 2006, he was sentenced to four years, three months after filing a class-action lawsuit against the local family planning bureau over forced abortions and other practices. Released in 2010, he was kept under house arrest but escaped in 2012, and made his way to the American Embassy in Beijing from where he and his family were allowed to leave for the United States. Chen filed complaints against officials in his province with the help of Li Heping, a lawyer whose license was revoked by the authorities and who is among those now detained with no word of a trial.
One of China's best-known dissident lawyers, Gao Zhisheng emerged from years of solitary confinement and torture to release a memoir this year that sparked international criticism of Beijing. After representing unpopular causes such as Falun Gong and Christians worshipping outside the official church, Gao was given a suspended sentence for subversion in 2006, but was repeatedly detained for long periods and returned to prison in 2011. Since his release in 2014, he has been living under near-constant surveillance by Chinese authorities, while his family has been living in the U.S. since fleeing there in 2009. Li Heping had appealed to Beijing judicial authorities on Gao's behalf after Gao's license was revoked.