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Chinese Public-Interest Lawyer Charged Amid Crackdown

August 21, 2009

The New York Times
August 18, 2009

BEIJING -- Prosecutors have charged one of
China’s leading public-interest lawyers, Xu
Zhiyong, with tax evasion, his lawyer said on
Tuesday, continuing a government crackdown on
this nation’s small band of activist lawyers and
scholars that has lasted months.

Mr. Xu, 36, is a founder of the Open Constitution
Initiative, known in Chinese as Gongmeng, a
nonprofit group that often has taken on
high-profile cases involving citizens’ civil
rights. The government shut down the
organization’s Gongmeng legal center on July 17,
three days after accusing it of tax violations,
and the police seized Mr. Xu on July 29.

In an interview on Tuesday, his lawyer, Zhou Ze,
said Mr. Xu was formally charged on Aug. 12. Mr.
Xu could face seven years in prison if he is
tried and convicted. The prosecutors now must
seek an indictment, but that is widely considered a formality.

The government’s main accusation is that Mr. Xu’s
group failed to pay taxes on a $100,000 grant
from Yale University that was earmarked for the
legal center. But human rights advocates and
foreign political analysts agree that the charges
are politically inspired, part of what seems to
be a growing effort by security officials to shut
down independent activism and especially activism
that is supported with foreign funds.

The government has moved this year to block many
foreign-based Web sites and social-networking
services used by Chinese activists and, often, by
Chinese citizens. It also has taken action
against a host of activist scholars and lawyers,
effectively disbarring about 50 lawyers earlier
this summer. Gao Zhisheng, whose aggressive legal
campaigns earned him a reputation as a gadfly,
has not been heard from since being taken into
custody more than six months ago.

A number of activist lawyers have been beaten or
harassed by unidentified assailants while working
this year on cases. And one of China’s most
prominent political dissidents, Liu Xiaobo, has
been held virtually incommunicado in a suburban
Beijing detention center since December.

Separately, the Beijing financial publication
Economic Observer reported on Tuesday that the
government had begun a broad inquiry into the
so-called resident representative offices of
foreign-based enterprises -- in essence, offices
that many foreign groups, including many
charities and nonprofit organizations, establish on Chinese soil.

The newspaper quoted an unnamed source as saying
that the government was drafting new regulations
governing the offices and that many of the
existing offices were suspected of violating Chinese law.

The current rules exempt the offices from paying
taxes but also bar them from conducting business
activities. The unnamed source was quoted as
saying that many offices have flouted that
prohibition, while others are guilty of lesser
violations like failing to report address changes
or renew expired registrations.

The report stated that investigators had already
begun visiting some resident representative
offices. In at least some instances, the
investigators have been accompanied by the
police, Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher with the
Hong Kong office of Human Rights Watch, said in an interview on Tuesday.

The government’s move against Gongmeng and Mr.
Xu, he said, has sent a chill sweeping over
China’s activist organizations, in large part
because Gongmeng is widely seen as one of the
most scrupulous groups working to expand the rule
of law. Indeed, Mr. Xu, a professor at Beijing’s
University of Posts and Telecommunications, has
been an elected member of a local governing body,
the People’s Congress in Beijing’s Haidian district, since 2003.

"He was doing everything aboveboard," said Mr.
Bequelin, who called Mr. Xu "the voice of
moderation" in public-interest legal circles. "If he goes down, who is safe?"
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