A total of 168 lawyers signed a petition letter sent to the State Council on Saturday, demanding revocation of amended regulations on law firms seen as a further attempt to silence legal practitioners critical of the authorities.
The lawyers said the changes were “against the rights and freedoms of speech, of the press, peaceable assembly and protest enshrined by the constitution”.
When the new provision comes into force next month law firms will be punished if their lawyers write open letters, sign petitions or organise forums to put pressure on judicial authorities.
What China’s crackdown on lawyers says about authorities’ fear of burgeoning rights defence movement
The latest amended regulations on law firms by the Ministry of Justice, published in September, include items that hold firms responsible if their lawyers make “misleading and distorting comments” on cases, or “provoke discontent towards the Communist Party”.
The lawyers said the amendment was forced by Minister of Justice Wu Aiying through “black-box operations” without any form of public consultation, violating the country’s legislation law.
They also said the amendment would give judicial authorities unwarranted power that used to be held by police, a change that was also against the legislation law.
“The amendment will not protect the national interest and the socialist legal system. Instead, it will lead to the decline and decay of the practise of law in China,” the petition letter reads. The amendment of regulations on law firms comes after Beijing carried out a crackdown on rights lawyers that began last July, and is seen as tightening their grip on the outspoken group.
More than 300 rights lawyers and activists have been detained, sentenced or questioned since then. Four were jailed in August for between three to seven years on subversion charges, in the first trials arising from the campaign.
Chinese law firms face punishment under amended rules if lawyers exert pressure on judicial authorities
At the centre of the crackdown, Zhou Shifeng, director of the Fengrui Law Firm, was accused of “hyping up sensitive cases” and “provoking discontent towards the government” in his August trial, both actions that are banned under the latest regulations.
Amid widespread criticism of the fairness of the judiciary bodies, lawyers, legal scholars and activists have been trying to draw public attention to controversial cases through signing petitions, filing open letters or holding legal forums on specific cases