In a daring and unprecedented motion recently smuggled out of China, six Chinese lawyers have for the first time formally defended Falun Gong adherents' right to freedom of belief in court.
"Falun Gong … which advocates 'truthfulness, benevolence and forbearance,' has been banned and persecuted for no justifiable reason at all," says the document. "The current various punitive actions against Falun Gong believers do not have any legal basis, and must therefore be stopped."
The defendants in the case are a family of three—Wang Bo, 27, and her two parents, Wang Xinzhong and Liu Shuqin. All three practice Falun Gong, a Chinese meditation and spiritual discipline. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) banned the practice in 1999, when several leaders perceived Falun Gong as a threat to their power after its adherents reportedly outnumbered Party members.
To strengthen the campaign against Falun Gong, the CCP issued directives barring attorneys from defending practitioners. Since then, the authorities have disbarred or arrested most attorneys who have tried.
"In China, defense lawyers have themselves been arrested, arbitrarily detained, subject to criminal prosecution or imprisonment simply because they provide legal representation to Falun Gong adherents and other Chinese citizens targeted for persecution by the authorities," says Terri Marsh, executive director of the Human Rights Law Foundation, based in Washington, D.C.
Despite such circumstances, as the family's trial approached, six lawyers from Beijing—Li Heping, Li Xiongbing, Zhang Lihui, Li Shunzhang, Teng Biao, and Wu Hongwei—decided to disregard the prohibition and represent Wang and her parents.
"I think Falun Gong practitioners have fundamental rights," said Teng Biao, one of the six attorneys, on a New Tang Dynasty Television program in April. "In the face of this persecution, intellectuals and attorneys in mainland China remain silent. This kind of silence is unconscionable, and that is why we're here to defend Wang Bo."
Defense on Multiple Fronts
The lawyers' 14-page motion, which was submitted to a court in Hebei Province in April 2007, combines legal theory on freedom of belief with an analysis of Chinese law. Drawing on sources ranging from Thomas Jefferson to Japanese legislation on religious organizations, it reflects extensive research on the part of its authors. Enumerating multiple ways in which the campaign against Falun Gong violates China's constitution, the lawyers argue that the criminal charges against their clients lack any legal basis.
The lawyers' defense of Wang and her parents consists of six parts, beginning with a section reaffirming what they see as universal principles related to the case, as well as dismantling the CCP's claim that Falun Gong had to be collectively banned because it was supposedly a "cult."
The section addresses three issues: the right to freedom of belief, the legal principle that a criminal offense can only be based on one's conduct and not one's thoughts, and the separation of religion and the state, which the lawyers term "The Great Divide." Among the sources sited in this latter subsection is American founding father Thomas Jefferson.
"Jefferson criticized the history of the integration of religion with political regimes … refined the principle of The Great Divide, and realized this principle in a political system," write the lawyers. "The current laws, regulations, and judicial practices which sanction the suppression of Falun Gong deviate from the principle of The Great Divide."
But for Guo Guoting, a Shanghai lawyer who was disbarred and exiled to Canada in 2005 for defending Falun Gong, the most impressive aspect of the motion is the second part. It covers the unconstitutionality of the campaign against Falun Gong and argues that the persecution itself is illegal and invalid.
"In the case of Falun Gong, this is a fundamental principle," says Guo, who has authored several articles analyzing the campaign against Falun Gong. "A lot of Chinese lawyers who defend Falun Gong do not dare to mention this point. They just defend the individual practitioner, but don't argue against the whole persecution. [These lawyers] mention all the key points."
Having established the illegality of the ban on Falun Gong, the lawyers focus the next three sections on denouncing the measures taken to wipe out the practice and calling on the government to review its policy.
"We believe that adopting high-handed policies against Falun Gong believers not only opposes the Chinese constitution and basic international human rights standards," they write. "Even from a practical perspective, the persecution has had a limited or even counterproductive effect."
Taking the argument a step further, they call for those who've committed abuses against Falun Gong to be held accountable.
"We also consider the implementation of torture on Falun Gong practitioners to be a violation of our country's Criminal Law provisions, thus constituting a crime," they write. "The perpetrators should bear responsibility for their criminal actions."
The document's final section then addresses the specific situation of their clients. Wang and her parents were facing imprisonment for posting online information exposing abuses, downloading materials related to Falun Gong, and taking photos of a banner calling on people to quit the CCP.
"The identification of the above behavior as criminal … is absurd," they write. "Using a camera to take photographs is a part of normal life for citizens, and does not threaten or harm society. It is ludicrous to judge citizens' normal practice of their faith or day-to-day activities as criminal."
"We ask that you respect citizens' constitutional rights, righteously face your historic responsibility, have the courage to face the truth and your conscience, and acquit the innocent defendants," concludes the motion.
But in a move typical of Chinese courts' treatment of Falun Gong, the judges did not acquit the three practitioners. Without responding to any of the arguments raised in the defense motion, on May 9, they upheld the previous court's decision and sentenced Wang Bo and her parents each to three years in prison where they remain today.
"They just ignored the submission," says Guo Guoting. "This is how Chinese courts are. They don't dare to even mention the defense lawyers' points. Because all the judges who handle such cases are CCP members and are so-called 'politically reliable'… they don't dare speak what they are truly thinking. So, in China, the courts give no justice at all."
Equally disconcerting for those who hope to see rule of law emerge in China, the lawyers themselves have become victims of abuse since taking the case. On the day of the hearing, Teng Biao was reportedly beaten by police. Last month, Li Heping was kidnapped and shocked with electric batons.
"I was so badly beaten that I rolled on the ground everywhere," said Li in a statement later posted online. "Yet, they continued to chase and beat me with smiles on their faces. The beating went on and off for four to five hours."
Such treatment by the authorities against those who defend Falun Gong has been a consistent pattern. To Guo Guoting, himself a victim of such retaliation, the fact that the lawyers wrote such a motion despite the risks, is a testament of their dedication to the rule of law.
"Why did they speak out? Because they did their job. I respect them," he says. "They are true human rights lawyers."
"Li Heping and his colleagues have brought the related cases of Falun Gong practitioners Wang Bo and her parents to trial," said Marsh. "This is unprecedented in China and the partial transcript of these proceedings will have far reaching consequences for China and the outside world in the years to come."
In 2002, Wang Bo was sentenced to a labor camp for raising a Falun Gong banner on Tiananmen Square. By manipulating statements Wang made under torture, China's state-run television station produced an influential anti-Falun Gong program claiming Wang had been convinced to give up the practice.
Upon her release, Wang posted an online video recounting the abuse she suffered and denouncing the television program. Soon after, Wang and her parents were arrested and sentenced to four and five years in prison, respectively, on vague charges of "using a heretical organization to undermine the law." At the time of the first trial, the three were unable to find a lawyer to represent them.