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China bans magic circle chambers over alleged human rights ‘disinformation’

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Country accuses London’s Essex Court Chambers of spreading ‘lies’ about treatment of Uighur Muslims

The Chinese government has imposed a series of sanctions on a leading London barristers’ chambers for allegedly spreading “lies and disinformation” about the treatment of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang province.

The sanctions appear to be in retaliation to the UK government’s decision earlier this week to take action against a number of Chinese officials in response to alleged human rights abuses of Uighur Muslims.

Magic circle super-set Essex Court Chambers is one of four UK ‘entities’ to be hit with sanctions this morning by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, alongside nine individuals including human rights specialist Baroness Kennedy QC and Sir Geoffrey Nice QC.

Sir Geoffrey, chair of the Uighur Tribunal, which is investigating alleged human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims, said:

“The sanctions imposed by the PRC [People’s Republic of China] will not affect the work of the Tribunal and will not be held against the PRC by The Tribunal in reaching an independent judgment on the information provided to the Tribunal by any group, state, or individual that wishes to engage. We continue to hope that the PRC will respond to our invitations to cooperate with the Tribunal and provide evidence to help the Tribunal in its work.”

Back in February four members of Essex Court Chambers — Alison Macdonald QC, Jackie McArthur, Naomi Hart and Lorraine Aboagye — penned a legal opinion which found there to be a “very credible case” that the Chinese government is carrying out the crime of genocide against the Uighur people in Xinjiang. China dismisses all claims of abuses in the region.

Groups and individuals named on today’s will are banned from entering China, including Hong Kong and Macau, while Chinese citizens and institutions are also prevented from doing business with them. Any assets they have in China will be frozen, too, according to the announcement.

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Responding to the sanctions imposed on Essex Court Chambers, Derek Sweeting QC, chair of the Bar Council, which represents all barristers in England and Wales, said:

“The Bar Council strongly condemns any threat against members of the bar simply for doing their job. Sanctioning a chambers or any legal organisation because a member has given a legal opinion in accordance with their professional obligations is an attack on the rule of law.”

Meanwhile, Robert Buckland, the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, tweeted that “chambers isn’t responsible for an opinion by one of its members”, adding that “a lawyer shouldn’t be identified with the acts or views of the client, & the rule of law requires lawyers to be able to advise clients and give legal opinions without [foreign] governmental interference”.

Other individuals named on the list include MPs Iain Duncan Smith, Tom Tugendhat, Nus Ghani, Neil O’Brien and Tim Loughton, all of whom have spoken out at the alleged mistreatment of Uighur Muslims by China.

Essex Court Chambers has been approached for comment.

Update: 4:26pm

Essex Court Chambers has now issued the following statement:

“The members of Essex Court Chambers were made aware earlier today that the Government of the People’s Republic of China has placed “Essex Court Chambers” on a list of persons or entities subject to international sanctions. This decision is understood to be related to the fact that four members of chambers wrote a legal opinion dated 8 February 2021 concerning the treatment of the Uyghur population in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (“Legal Opinion”).”

“The Legal Opinion was written by the four members of chambers concerned pursuant to instructions received from Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) in association with the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) and Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP). In writing that opinion, each of these four individuals was providing independent legal advice in accordance with their professional obligations and qualifications as members of the Bar of England and Wales subject to regulatory supervision by the Bar Standards Board. The Legal Opinion received significant publicity in international media following its publication last month. None of the four relevant members of chambers published the Legal Opinion.”

“Essex Court Chambers is not a law firm and has no collective or distinct legal identity of any kind. Members of chambers are self-employed sole practitioners each regulated in their own capacity as separate individuals by the Bar Standards Board. Members of Chambers are commonly retained by opposing sides in the same dispute, both in litigation and arbitration, with protocols in place to safeguard confidentiality. No other member of Essex Court Chambers was involved in or responsible for the advice and analysis contained in the Legal Opinion or its publication.”

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