The Gongmeng Law Research Center of the Open Constitution Initiative (OCI), an organization set up to provide legal consultation and assistance to the public, was shut down on July 17th. The Beijing Municipal Bureau of Civil Affairs, which carried out the action, said that the research center was shut down because it did not register with the government, according to Human Rights in China (HRIC).

Founded by three legal scholars and a lawyer in 2003, OCI's work aims to promote the rule of law and social justice. Like many civil society organizations in China, OCI faced onerous and restrictive requirements under the civil society organization regulations and registered in 2005 as a for-profit company instead. In recent months, OCI has been advising family members of victims of the tainted milk powder scandal to file suits against those responsible.

"In the wake of the violence in Xinjiang, the shutdown of the Gongmeng Law Research Center sends a strong signal that the government will continue to tighten control over civil society in every respect - to sweep up, so to speak - in preparation for the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China in October," said Sharon Hom, executive director of HRIC. "This incident is another example of the government's hostility to independent civil society organizations and rights defense activities."

On July 14, OCI received notices from the national and Beijing local taxation bureaus ordering it to pay 1.42 million yuan ($208,000) in fines for tax violations, an amount that is five times the taxes that the authorities said OCI evaded. On July 17, in an operation that lasted from 9:30am to 2:00pm, representatives from the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Civil Affairs came to OCI's office and took away computers and other office machines, as well as files and documents. They also delivered an official decision to shut down the law research center, saying that it is not allowed to operate because it did not register as a civil society organization.

Zhang Lihui, a board member and researcher at OCI, said the shutdown lacked legal basis because the research center was part of the OCI organization, and did not have to register separately. He said that OCI - the umbrella organization - intends to "continue to operate according to law."

Zhang said, "Organizations like OCI help to relieve social conflict. In a society where violence is pervasive, if organizations like OCI are not allowed to exist, violence in society would only increase."

The following is an English translation by HRIC of the Beijing Bureau of Civil Affairs decision:

Decision on Shutting Down

Beijing Bureau of Civil Affairs Enforcement Shutting Down Document [2009] No. 1

Decision on Shutting Down the Gongmeng Law Research Center of the Open Constitution Initiative

According to an investigation, the Gongmeng Law Research Center of the Open Constitution Initiative has carried out its activities in the name of a private non-enterprise unit without registration and authorization, thereby violating Article 3 of the Provisional Regulation of Registration and Management on Private Non-Enterprise Units. This Bureau has therefore decided, in accordance with Article 27 of the Provisional Regulation on the Registration and Management on Private Non-Enterprise Units and Articles 2 and 3 of the Provisional Measure for Closing Illegal Civil Society Organizations, to shut down the Gongmeng Law Research Center of the Open Constitution Initiative.

This decision is effective upon announcement.

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