More than 40 Chinese lawyers on the mainland called for the dismissal of the Minister of Justice in a petition sent to the State Council and the National People’s Congress on Monday.
They cited a series of regulations issued by the ministry, which they said were unlawful and had severely violated lawyers’ rights.
“In recent years, the Ministry of Justice, headed by Wu Aiying, has introduced several regulations that seriously violated the constitution and the law, beefed up the ministry’s power and severely infringed upon the lawful rights of lawyers and law firms, while burdening them with extra obligations,” they said in the petition letter signed by 44 lawyers and 375 members of the public.
The move comes amid a growing backlash from the Chinese legal community against a controversial amendment to regulations on law firms issued by the ministry in late September – which is among the provisions that the petition wants revoked.
The new regulations, to be put into force in November, are seen by rights groups as a further attempt to silence lawyers critical of the authorities during what they have described as “the worst crackdown” on human rights in two decades.
Beijing carried out a sweeping crackdown on rights lawyers that began in July 2015, which saw more than 300 rights lawyers and activists detained, sentenced or questioned.
Four were jailed in August for between three to seven years on subversion charges in the first trials arising from the campaign.
Despite the crackdown having a big impact on the legal community, it does not appear to have deterred lawyers from coming forward to protest against these new amendments.
A total of 168 lawyers had already signed and sent a petition to the State Council over the weekend, demanding that the amended regulations on law firms be revoked.
They said the changes went “against the rights and freedoms of speech, of the press, peaceable assembly and protest enshrined by the constitution”.
Cheng Hai, a Beijing-based lawyer who initiated and drafted the petition calling for Ai’s removal, said the new provisions were “legally groundless” and a “gruesome violation” of the constitution and law.
The firms would also be held responsible if their lawyers organised any form of protest or gathering outside offices of state organs, or “provoke discontent towards the Communist Party and the government”.
Cheng said: “The only group of citizens in China that are prohibited by law from disseminating remarks that harm the reputation of the country, organising or participating in anti-state assemblies and protests are civil servants, according to the Civil Servant Law.
“The law has no such restriction on other citizens.”
The petition also demands the revocation of three other provisions that are being issued concerning the annual assessment of law firms, the firms’ practising certificate and the punishment of unlawful acts on lawyers and their firms.
“The ministry of justice is in charge of judicial administration and the management of lawyers and therefore should all the more safeguard the proper implementation of law,” Cheng said.
“But it has exceeded its authority and made regulations to control lawyers that go against the law.
“To establish rule by law, it is crucial that the authorities should themselves abide by the law. In China, the problem of violation of law by authorities is very severe, and the key is the lack of supervision. “Relying on internal supervision of the government and the party is far from enough. We need more people, especially the public, to supervise. And this is what we are trying to do with the petition,” he said.