2 China lawyers who defended Falun Gong face ban

BEIJING (AP) — Two Chinese lawyers who represented a Falun Gong practitioner face the permanent loss of their legal licenses — a new government tactic to tighten its grip on human rights defenders.

Dozens of lawyers are expected to attend Thursday's hearing in support of Tang Jitian and Liu Wei, who are accused of "disrupting the order of the court" during an April 2009 trial in which they defended a follower of the banned spiritual group.

The two lawyers say they were illegally videotaped during the trial, interrupted repeatedly by the judge and ordered out of the courtroom by unidentified men.

An e-mail circulating among Chinese lawyers Wednesday said Tang and Liu would be the first lawyers in Beijing, where most rights lawyers are based, to lose their licenses permanently without having a criminal conviction.

An official with the Beijing Justice Bureau, which will hold Thursday's hearing, hung up when reached by phone. Xiao Lizhu said she was too busy to talk about the case. The secretary of the Beijing Bar Association, Li Bingru, also hung up when called.

Lawyers in China have faced increasing restrictions over the past year, with a prominent Beijing-based legal nonprofit group shut down and the licenses of more than 50 Beijing lawyers not renewed.

This time, lawyers and human rights groups say the action being taken against Tang and Liu is even more serious because having a license revoked means a lifetime ban on practicing law.

They also worry that new measures by the Ministry of Justice that take effect June 1 will allow authorities to punish lawyers in this way for actions such as talking to the media or even causing "traffic troubles."

"The lawyers' system in China is either becoming a tool of the authorities or heading toward death," lawyer Jiang Tianyong said in a statement released by the New York-based Human Rights in China.

Chinese authorities tend to crack down on anything they see as dissent, and many are uncomfortable with the increasing assertiveness of the country's lawyers. Many lawyers have been punished in the past for taking on work involving sensitive issues like the Falun Gong, which the communist government has banned as an evil cult — apparently concerned it could threaten the state's authority.

"There is absolutely no basis for them to revoke our licenses," Liu said Wednesday. "We think they retaliated against us for what we've done in the past, like appealing for direct elections within the lawyers' association. What they've done to us is completely illegal, let alone unfair."

The complaint against the lawyers comes from the Luzhou Municipal Intermediate People's Court in Sichuan province, the scene of the April 2009 trial.

Tang and Liu eventually walked out of the courtroom after they objected to being videotaped — which is illegal in Chinese courtrooms — and the court descended into chaos.

The two have never been given a copy of the complaint and were given just a quick look at it, Liu said Wednesday.

"I remember it mentioned that we disturbed the order in the court and used inappropriate language," she said.