We spoke to a London human rights lawyer about China locking up human rights lawyers

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By Katie King on

He describes the arrests as “obviously unjustified”


This morning a number of prevalent solicitors and barristers have penned an open letter calling upon Chinese president Xi Jinping to end of his human rights crack down and free a host of jailed lawyers.

The letter, published in the Guardian, sees lawyers including Doughty Street duo Helena Kennedy QC and Kirsty Brimelow demand the country starts acting like a “respected global superpower” and respect the rule of law.

In and amongst growing concerns about the Chinese economy, the country is experiencing a wave of anti-human rights hysteria, with the authorities at the forefront of this unprecedented crack down.

Last week, the BBC reported that at least seven human rights lawyers and associates had been arrested on charges of “subversion”, with high profile human rights lawyer Wang Yu and her husband subsequently locked up.

Subversion is an offence under the People’s Republic of China’s Penal Code, and is commonly used to trap human rights workers. The law has survived a damning review by the UN — which slammed its broad and imprecise definition for leaving the door wide open for misuse and misapplication — and even led to the conviction and incarceration of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo.

We wanted to get a UK perspective on the matter, so Legal Cheek caught up with Shoaib Khan — a rising star solicitor and barrister with a particular interest in human rights who is big on Twitter — to find out what he made of the situation.

Unsurprisingly, Khan is appalled by the frenzy. Speaking about the “obviously unjustified” arrests and charges, the City Law School grad told us:

Charging individuals or groups with widely-defined offences such as ‘subversion’ or ‘sedition’ is how despotic regimes quell any opposing voices. These individuals charged with subversion in China are human rights lawyers and staff at human rights law firms. The only threat they pose to the state is that they assist persecuted groups and individuals in seeking redress for human rights breaches by the state.

He continued:

Although such arrests and intimidation are nothing new in China, it does prove that the Chinese government’s claims that things are changing are not true.

The government’s message, according to Khan, is startling clear: work on behalf of victims of human rights violations, and expect severe punishment.

But, it’s all too easy for us, as UK observers, to tut and shake our heads at China’s perception of human rights lawyers, without reflecting on how human rights and their activists are regarded on home soil. Developments in China seem alien, but look at them in their wider context and strong parallels can be drawn with the UK.

Khan explains:

Tabloids, other media, and politicians have all lined up in the past few weeks to criticise human rights lawyers, threatening them with disciplinary action, and expressing delight at the prospect that certain lawyers ‘might be struck off’ for their human rights work with certain groups.

A few days ago Legal Cheek reported that the Daily Mail had launched a scathing attack on human rights firm Public Interest Lawyers — one that made it to the national newspaper’s front page.

Khan leaves us with a frightening thought — look on at China disapprovingly all you will, but we, the UK, may well be on a slippery slope.