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Zhang Sizhi, lawyer who defended Chinese dissidents, dies at 94

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Zhang Sizhi, a Chinese lawyer who has defended politically controversial clients, including underlings of Mao Zedong, Tiananmen-era dissidents, purged officials and victims of police frame-ups, inspiring generations of lawyers from human rights through his advocacy, died on June 24 in Beijing. He was 94 years old.

His death, in a hospital, was announced by Wu Luan Zhao Yan’s lawyers in Beijing, where he had worked as a senior consultant. Fu Kexin, a lawyer who worked with Mr. Zhang for many years, said the cause was cancer.

Mr. Zhang survived war and then persecution under Mao Zedong to become one of China’s most famous lawyers. Outright victories were rare in the country’s courtrooms, which are controlled by the Communist Party. But Mr. Zhang refused to accept that he was there as a mere ornament. He used careful preparation and rigorous arguments to discredit allegations of botched prosecutions, challenge indictment charges and, at times, score victories.

There are those in our country who today see Chinese avocados as decorative vases, Mr. Zhang said in an interview published in 2008. But even if you are put in a vase, you still have the right to decide s ‘It’s going to be covered in dew. rose with thorns or dogtail grass stick.

Mr. Zhang began his legal career as a Beijing court official, proud to serve the communist revolution. After the armed repression of the 1989 protests, he fiercely defended people accused of fomenting counter-revolutionary unrest.

His efforts have served as an example to other Chinese lawyers, who have increasingly abused state power. During the last decade of Mr. Zhang’s life, Chinese leader Xi Jinping worked to stifle the so-called rights movement, disbarring, detaining or jailing hundreds of lawyers and legal activists.

He was very tenacious, fighting after every defeat. He was unbreakable, said Ms. Fu, who had worked with Mr. Zhang since the early 1990s. He certainly had an important role to play in that direction.

Mr. Zhang was born on November 12, 1927 in Zhengzhou, central China, the eldest of 10 children. Her father, Zhang Jingtang, was a doctor, and her mother, Meng Yanrong, ran the house. Growing up during the Japanese invasion of China, Mr Zhang originally planned to study diplomacy to help his homeland, he wrote in a memoir published in Hong Kong in 2014.

As Japanese forces gained ground, the family moved to southwest China. A few days after turning 16, Mr. Zhang joined the Nationalist government’s army and was sent to fight in the India-Burma border region. After Japan’s defeat, he enrolled at Chaoyang University in Beijing, where he studied law. He also became increasingly involved in underground Communist Party politics.

When Mao’s forces came to power in 1949, Mr. Zhang, one of the few party activists with a legal background, was appointed as a judge in a Beijing court when he was just 21 years old. . language when criticizing former court officials, although he later regretted being so harsh.

As Mao tightened his grip, Mr. Zhang also became the target of official suspicion and criticism, in part because of his time in the defeated Nationalist forces. After being branded a “rightist” in 1957, he was stripped of his Communist Party membership and sent to work in the countryside. His law books were sent in draft form. He then taught at a school in Beijing, his legal career apparently behind him.

After Mao’s death in 1976, Mr. Zhang’s talents were needed again as China’s new rulers began to rebuild the legal system. He received a request in 1980 to act as defense counsel for the Gang of Four and other former officials to be tried for their role in the extremes of the Cultural Revolution. More experienced lawyers had turned down high-pressure work; Mr. Zhang agreed, even though he hated the Cultural Revolution.

The defendants – including Jiang Qing, Mao’s widow – were accused of usurping power and persecuting officials. Ms. Jiang rejected Mr. Zhang’s offer to represent her, and he later said that he regretted not being able to vigorously defend her in the much-repeated lawsuit.

When another former official, Li Zuopeng, was put on trial, Mr. Zhang and his colleagues persuaded the judges to dismiss two of the most serious charges. Ms. Jiang was given a suspended death sentence, commuted to life imprisonment; Mr. Li was sentenced to 17 years in prison.

Mr. Zhang returned to criminal defense work after 1989, when he defended activists and a former senior official, Bao Tong, accused by the Communist Party of supporting the Tiananmen Square protests demanding political liberalization.

Mr. Zhang has given himself body and soul to uphold the rights of citizens and the dignity of the law, Mr. Bao said in a written message. Mr. Bao was sentenced to seven years in prison, although he and Mr. Zhang methodically challenged the charges in a 1992 trial. “The law is always a losing battle,” Mr. Bao wrote. . , “because it is a creature of politics”.

By the 1990s, Mr. Zhang had perfected his strategy: sifting through hundreds of pages of evidence, a grueling feat before photocopiers were commonplace; identify weaknesses in the prosecutor’s case; and develop a watertight argument that could possibly persuade, or shame, judges to lower the charges or hand down a relatively lenient sentence. Even though courts have generally ignored his arguments to find someone not guilty, former clients said, Mr. Zhang has worked from every angle.

“Zhang Sizhi has always conducted a defense within the framework of Chinese law,” said Gao Yu, a Beijing reporter whom Mr. Zhang defended in 1994, in an interview. She credited him with persuading the court to accept less serious charges after he was accused of leaking state secrets.

This law has many flaws, Ms. Gao said, but he would always find places in it that would help his client.

Mr. Zhang continued to defend or advise clients in dozens of long-running cases, trying to remain calm in the face of obstacles from prosecutors and court officials.

Those he represented included Tenzin Deleg Rimpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist monk convicted of a bombing charge that his supporters denounced as a set-up; Wu Ying, a businesswoman who fought and eventually overturned a death sentence on a minor charge of financial fraud; and Nie Shubin, a factory worker executed in 1995 on false charges of rape and murder. In 2016, China’s highest court exonerated Mr. Nie.

“Even in his 60s, 70s and 80s, he was extraordinarily insightful in identifying legal connections and important facts,” said Pu Zhiqiang, a lawyer in Beijing who worked on cases with Mr. Zhang, in an interview.

Mr. Pu was arrested in 2014 after attending a meeting in Beijing to mark the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, and Mr. Zhang was about to defend him when he suffered a stroke, forcing him to reduce his work in court. . Mr. Zhang has continued to advise and encourage Chinese lawyers, sometimes chiding those who he says put publicity ahead of their clients’ interests.

“Where are guys like him now?” asked Mr. Pu, who was banned from working at the court. “There will truly never be another like him.”

Mr. Zhang is survived by his wife, Qu Yuan; one son, Zhang Ji; one daughter, Zhang Jian; a little girl; a great-grandson; three brothers; and four sisters.

After his death, many Chinese lawyers paid tribute. But authorities held his funeral and limited attendance to 20 people, citing Covid limitations, Mr Pu said.

Their real concern, he said, was Mr. Zhang’s legacy.

“I don’t want to be pushed around, so I had to constantly resist,” Zhang said at a conference in Hong Kong in 2014. But in contemporary China, he added, “it’s impossible to achieve the goals of protecting rights and fulfilling rights”. justice, and I shed tears.

The post Zhang Sizhi, lawyer who defended Chinese dissidents, dies at 94 appeared first on the New York Times.

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