The Beijing Yitong Law Firm was given notice that it will be shut down for six months for, the authorities claimed, allowing a lawyer in the firm to practice without a license. However, the lawyer in question, Li Subin (æ?è?æ»¨), said that most likely the authorities wanted to punish the firm because some of its lawyers were among the signers of an appeal in August 2008 that called for direct election of the Beijing Lawyers Association and because the firm has handled a number of controversial cases.
Li, a prominent defense lawyer, was previously unable to renew his license in Henan Province, where he was then based, after he sued the local judicial bureau for overcharging lawyers' registration fees and won. Li then went to Beijing and joined Yitong as an administrator and assistant to other lawyers.
In October 2008, Li and Cheng Hai (ç¨?æµ•), another prominent defense lawyer, left Yitong under pressure from the firm. Earlier, five other lawyers at the firm, also signers of the appeal, had been dismissed or left voluntarily.
"We are concerned that this seems to be part of a pattern of misuse of judicial and regulatory process to punish lawyers who take on matters deemed sensitive by the authorities," said Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China (HRIC).
According to Yitong, on February 16, 2009, officials of the Haidian District Judicial Bureau delivered a notice to Yitong that the firm will be punished for permitting a lawyer to practice without a license. The following day, Yitong received a second notice stating that the Judicial Bureau intends to shut down the firm for six months and that the firm can request a hearing by February 20.
Liu Xiaoyuan (å??æ?"å??), a partner at Yitong, told HRIC that a six-month shutdown was an uncommonly harsh punishment for the alleged violation, and that authorities could have issued warnings or confiscated the earnings resulting from the alleged violation. He believes the authorities' aim is to finish off the firm, and that this is exactly the same way that Gao Zhisheng's (é«?å¿—æ??) firm was shut down in 2005.*
Li told HRIC that if he violated the law, the authorities should have targeted him personally with measures such as expulsion from the Communist Party. He said that lawyers' support for the direct election probably angered the authorities, and that the action against Yitong is meant to "kill one person to warn 100."
* Gao Zhisheng wrote a series of open letters criticizing the Chinese authorities' suppression of Falun Gong practitioners in 2005. His Beijing law firm was shut down soon after that.