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Legal rights violations in China: Should Obama speak up? [UPDATED]

August 13, 2009 |  5:50 pm

China In what seems to be part of a crackdown on civil rights lawyers in China, the Chinese government has arrested prominent civil rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong on tax fraud charges. Zhiyong, who has not been heard from since his arrest two weeks ago, started the nonprofit Open Constitution Initiative legal clinic six years ago, which has recently represented victims of the poisoned milk powder that left three children dead and 6,000 sick in China. Zhiyong's clinic was shut down for "tax evasion." Experts say this arrest does not bode well for the already precarious rule of law in China, and human rights activists across the political spectrum are calling for President Obama to speak up on the issue.

While the Chinese government over the last several years has made much progress in multiple areas of law, including trade and corporate issues, civil rights law is less established and growing slowly because of the risks lawyers who practice in this field face. Very few lawyers (Freedom House says there are only several dozen) are willing to take on cases such as defending parents whose infants were affected by poisonous baby formula or death row inmates.

Xu was one of the few. Many of his fellow lawyers have been disbarred and believe they will never be reinstated as practicing attorneys, even though they were working within the law to try make change in China. "None of these guys were going around the government," Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch told me. "They took cases to court that were violations under Chinese law. It's not an anomaly when you disbar the only 50 people who practice this kind of law."

The question is, why now? According to Clayton Dube, associate director of the USC U.S.-China Institute, many blame this recent crackdown on the upcoming celebration of the 60th anniversary of Communist China. He says the government's skepticism of these lawyers started back with the earthquake in the Sichuan province, continued with the Tibetan protests (many of whom were represented by rights lawyers) and grew with the milk contamination cases. In other words, this isn't a new phenomenon.

Both Freedom House and Human Rights Watch have said that they wish the Obama administration would do more to confront China over the violation of legal and civil rights, the effects of which they say are not only felt by Chinese citizens but often also by foreigners, as was the case with the exported baby formula.

Should the Obama administration speak out against the infringement of human rights in China and the deterioration of this field of law? China is a strategic partner that might not react well to harsh criticism from its economic ally. Even so, is it the president's duty to press on this issue and risk economic consequences for the United States?

Updated August 19 11:40 a.m.: The original post incorrectly referred to Freedom House as Freedom Watch.

Credit: AP Photo / Greg Baker

-- Catherine Lyons

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