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China is being punished for punishing lawyers hired to help Hong Kong activists

HONG KONG – Chinese legal authorities have threatened to revoke the licenses of two lawyers hired to help a group of protesters in Hong Kong who were arrested last year while trying to escape to Taiwan by speedboat.

Ten of the activists were sentenced last week by a court in the mainland Chinese city of Shenzhen for illegal border crossing and sentenced to seven months to three years in prison. Two other members of the group, who were minors at the time of their arrest in August, have been returned to Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous Chinese territory.

For the pro-democracy opposition in Hong Kong, the case highlighted fears of the Communist Party-controlled legal system on the continent and the risks it poses to the city’s tradition of an independent judiciary.

Most of the group faced charges in Hong Kong related to anti-government protests in 2019, including arson, riots, attacks on police officers and gun ownership. One member, Andy Lee, was investigated on suspicion of violating a national security law imposed on Hong Kong last year. They were arrested by the Chinese coast guard on their way to Taiwan, a self-governing democracy that Beijing claims as its territory, and detained on the mainland.

The two lawyers, Lou Xuei and Ren Quaniou, were hired by members of the activists’ family, but were barred from representing them. Instead, defendants were forced to rely on government-appointed lawyers.

The two lawyers have dealt with very sensitive cases. Mr. Lu was officially reprimanded after representing another human rights lawyer in 2019 who openly criticized the Chinese leadership. Mr Ren recently introduced Zhang Zhang, a civilian journalist who was sentenced last week to four years in prison for reporting on the coronavirus outbreak in the mainland Chinese city of Wuhan.

Mr. Wren received a notice from the Ministry of Justice in Henan Province, where he is licensed, saying he was facing dismissal due to a 2018 lawsuit involving a member of Falun Gong, the banned spiritual group. He said the case was most likely an excuse.

“The immediate cause is definitely related to the Hong Kong case and the Shanghai Zhang Zhang case,” he said in an audio message.

A letter sent to Mr Lu from the Ministry of Justice in Sichuan Province, where he is registered, states that he has been accused of “repeatedly publishing inappropriate language online”, without providing details. He said he planned to request a hearing, and called the authorities’ case against him “inexplicable oppression and persecution.”

Chinese authorities have been using annual licensing requirements for years to intimidate lawyers involved in sensitive cases, using the threat of imprisonment to punish those who do not relinquish.

Mr Lou and Mr Rehn were given three days each to hold hearings on their licenses, but Mr Rehn said there was little hope of a successful appeal.

A group representing members of the activists’ family said they believed the timing of the actions against the two lawyers showed that they had “apparently retaliated for their involvement” in the Hong Kong case.

“For the courage to oppose the existing powers and the persistence to defend the rights of the twelve, the authorities resorted to terminating their professional careers and depriving them of their livelihood,” the families said in a statement.

The families said they hoped to visit their imprisoned relatives as soon as possible, but have so far received little information from state-appointed lawyers.

Tiffany May contributed reporting.

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