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More than 20 of China's most prominent civil rights lawyers face the possible loss of their right to practice law as an apparent official reprisal for their rights advocacy efforts, Human Rights Watch said today.
Under Chinese law, lawyers and law firms must get their licenses to practice renewed annually, a process sometimes marred by political considerations. These civil rights lawyers say that in recent weeks the Beijing judicial authorities have been trying to pressure their firms not to endorse their re-licensing applications. The lawyers say that the firms' heads have been warned by judicial officials in meetings and telephone conversations about possible adverse consequences for their business if they continue to employ lawyers who take up rights cases.
"Control over the yearly renewal of professional licenses remains one of the main obstacles to the independence of China's legal profession," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "Even when law firms that have been pressured decide to stand by their lawyers, this kind of interference has a chilling effect on the legal profession."
According to an official April 14, 2009, notice from the Beijing Judicial Bureau detailing the registration procedures, lawyers must present their annual applications prior to the end of the registration period on May 31. Lawyers who fail to renew their professional licenses are in effect temporarily disbarred.
A number of the lawyers currently targeted have been involved in some of the most high-profile efforts to date to litigate on behalf of victims of human rights abuses and press for greater accountability from the government. They have represented families of victims of the melamine milk-powder scandal, parents of children killed during the Sichuan earthquake who are pressing for an investigation into the causes of the disproportionately high rate of school collapses, and Tibetans arrested in connection with the massive crackdown in Tibet. Others have been involved in representing HIV/AIDS patients, victims of police abuses, farmers evicted from their land, and Falungong practitioners.
Over the past few years, Human Rights Watch has extensively documented abuses of lawyers, widespread violations of the right of the defense in legal procedures, and a pattern of interference and political control in cases viewed as politically sensitive by the authorities. Although the government vowed to establish new procedural protections for lawyers in June 2008 when it promulgated revisions to the Law on Lawyers, those efforts have been inadequate. No efforts have been made to effectively safeguard the security of lawyers discharging their functions or to allow the government-controlled All-China Lawyers Association - the country's bar association - to play such role.
Human Rights Watch pointed out that instead of the promised reforms to protect the independence of lawyers, detention and physical abuses against lawyers by law enforcement officials have multiplied. In one such incident on May 13, 2009, lawyers Zhang Kai and Li Chunfu were arrested and beaten in police custody in Chongqing after meeting with the family of a man who had died while in a re-education-through-labor camp. The authorities have so far refused to investigate the incident.
"Interference and retaliation against lawyers are direct attacks on the rule of law," said Richardson. "Such actions perpetuate injustices, undermine confidence in legal institutions, and negate the government's own commitment to governing the country according to law."
Beijing lawyers who have reported concerns over the renewal of their license include
Li Heping, Cheng Hai, Jiang Tianyong, Li Xiongbing, Li Chunfu, Wang Yajun, Tang Jitian, Yang Huimin, Xie Yanyi, Li Dunyong, Wen Haibo, Liu Wei, Zhang Lihui, Peng Jian, Li Jinglin, Lan Zhixue, Zhang Kai and Liu Xiaoyuan. Two lawyers who practice outside of Beijing, Wei Liangyue and Yang Zaixin, have also reported threats over their licenses.
Human Rights Watch is one of the world's leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For 30 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.
"Forty-five million people with student loan debt will never forget when politicians, led by Republican extremists, went out of their way to push millions of working families, including their own constituents, into economic catastrophe," said one advocate.
Economic justice advocates cried foul Thursday after the U.S. Senate passed legislation that aims to block President Joe Biden's pending student debt cancellation plan and reverse already-delivered relief.
Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Jon Tester (Mont.), along with right-wing Independent Sen. Krysten Sinema (Ariz.), joined Senate Republicans in supporting H.J. Res. 45.
The Congressional Review Act (CRA) resolution, which House Republicans approved last week with the help of Democratic Reps. Jared Golden (Maine) and Marie Gluesenkamp Perez (Wash.), passed the Senate by a margin of 52-46. Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet (Colo.) and Mark Warner (Va.) didn't vote. The White House has vowed to veto the measure.
Passage of the legislation elicited a firestorm of criticism from progressive advocates and lawmakers.
"Forty-five million people with student loan debt will never forget when politicians, led by Republican extremists, went out of their way to push millions of working families, including their own constituents, into economic catastrophe by passing this reckless CRA resolution," Student Borrower Protection Center (SBPC) executive director Mike Pierce said in a statement.
"The American people are watching and expect President Biden to keep his promise to veto this horrendous bill."
The Biden administration's popular move to erase up to $20,000 in student debt for millions of federal borrowers with individual incomes below $125,000 and to improve the income-driven repayment (IDR) program is currently on hold as the U.S. Supreme Court considers a pair of deeply flawed legal challenges. A decision in the case is expected sometime this month, but right-wing lawmakers are doing everything in their power to sink the president's relief initiative regardless of how the high court rules.
Last week, the SBPC and the American Federation of Teachers warned of the "ruinous impact" H.J. Res. 45 would have on millions of working-class households nationwide, with AFT president Randi Weingarten condemning it as "an immoral clawback of the absolute worst kind."
In addition to blocking the potential cancellation of up to $20,000 in student debt per eligible borrower as well as money-saving changes to the IDR program, the CRA resolution would nullify the seventh and possibly eighth extensions of the federal student loan payment freeze first enacted by President Donald Trump in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, it would retroactively undo several months of already-canceled payments and waived interest charges, immediately leaving tens of millions of people past due on their loans.
Furthermore, the CRA resolution seeks to reinstate the student debt of more than 260,000 public service workers whose loan balances have been wiped clean since September 2022. If that were to happen, a combined debt burden of nearly $20 billion, which amounts to more than $72,000 per person, would be put back on the shoulders of teachers, nurses, first responders, and others who recently finished making 10 years of qualifying payments under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program that was enacted on a bipartisan basis in 2007 and streamlined by the Biden administration in 2021.
"Despite right-wing proponents' attempts to gaslight their own colleagues and the American people on the impact of this bill, this effort would push hundreds of thousands of public service workers back into debt and require the government to charge tens of millions of borrowers for interest that has already been canceled," said Pierce. "If enacted, it will cause irreparable damage to an already severely broken student loan system and undermine Americans' trust in our government."
"Today's vote makes crystal clear exactly who stood up and fought to protect the economic livelihoods of millions of people with student loan debt—and who schemed to keep them drowning in the debt despair of our nation's student loan crisis," he added. "The American people are watching and expect President Biden to keep his promise to veto this horrendous bill and deliver on his promise of student loan debt relief once and for all."
\u201cRepublicans in the Senate + Dem Senators Manchin, Sinema and Tester just voted to kill student debt relief and *raise* student debt balances by retroactively adding interest.\n\nTester, Sinema and Manchin are all up for re-election in 2024 and will have to explain their votes.\u201d— The Debt Collective \ud83d\udfe5 (@The Debt Collective \ud83d\udfe5) 1685644460
Ahead of a Wednesday vote to bring H.J. Res. 45 to the Senate floor, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said that "Republicans in Congress have shown time and time again that they'd much rather deliver relief to giant corporations and protect tax cheats than help working Americans whose biggest sin was trying to get an education."
On Thursday, the Massachusetts lawmaker called the bill's passage "shameful," and expressed confidence that Biden "will veto" it. Congress doesn't appear to have the two-thirds majority in each chamber needed to override a veto.
\u201cSenate Republicans just voted to block @POTUS' student debt relief plan, force millions to immediately pay back paused student loans & claw back relief from public servants. It's shameful. Thankfully we have President Biden who cares about working people & will veto this.\u201d— Elizabeth Warren (@Elizabeth Warren) 1685644466
Ahead of Thursday's vote, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a senior member and former chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, stressed that "this Republican bill wouldn't only rip away relief for borrowers who qualify under the president's plan."
"This CRA could impact the pause on loan payments and cause major problems for borrowers who have received relief through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness and income-driven repayment programs," Murray continued. "That means these Republican efforts could create the perfect storm for more than 260,000 public service workers who have already earned relief."
"Today's vote makes crystal clear exactly who stood up and fought to protect the economic livelihoods of millions of people with student loan debt—and who schemed to keep them drowning."
"If Republicans were to get their way and pass this bill into law," she added, "people across the country would have relief they are counting on snatched away from them, plans they have made upended, less money in their pockets, and monthly payments not just abruptly restarted—but maybe even abruptly jacked up by hundreds of dollars."
Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a member of the HELP committee, echoed that sentiment.
"Republicans' cruel attempt to stand in the way of President Biden's plans to provide relief to tens of millions of Americans suffering under the crushing weight of student loan debt is damaging to our economy and wildly out of touch with the financial realities facing working families," said Markey.
"The loan forgiveness the president is proposing would mean the difference between buying a home, starting a business, and getting an economic leg up for nearly 50 million working and middle-class Americans, particularly for borrowers of color and their families," he concluded. "If you kicked Republicans in the heart, you'd break your toe."
"If approved, this $500 million climate-wrecking handout would further threaten the air, land, and water of frontline communities in the United States and in Poland, making a mockery of Biden's purported commitment to environmental justice," said one campaigner.
Climate campaigners on Thursday said that within days, President Joe Biden's promises to end public finance for fossil fuel projects may prove empty if plans that the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation has indicated it has for an LNG project in Poland come to fruition.
The DFC, which oversees U.S. investments in development projects in lower- and middle-income countries, listed on its pending project list on May 23 a $500 million guarantee to support the Polish oil and gas company PKN Orlen to increase its liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports.
The pending transaction was listed ahead of the DFC's board meeting, which is scheduled for June 7.
Oil Change International (OCI) noted that the LNG listing was removed on May 30, but the "public information summary" remained live as of Thursday, suggesting the board could still approve the project.
The project, which would involve Wall Street firm Goldman Sachs helping the company to increase its imports, would be in direct contradiction to President Joe Biden's statement at the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2021 that his administration would end public finance for fossil fuel development after 2022.
"President Biden has cited his promise to end international public funding for fossil fuels as a sign of his ongoing commitment to climate leadership, even as he boosts fossil fuels and breaks many of his core climate promises at home," said Collin Rees, U.S. program manager at OCI. "The Development Finance Corporation approving this dirty project would show once and for all these claims are nothing but empty words."
"LNG is a false solution that will intensify the climate crisis and increase the world's dependence on fossil fuels."
LNG is gas that has been cooled and liquefied after being extracted by drilling or fracking. As Common Dreamsreported in April, 116 climate action groups wrote to Biden ahead of the Group of 7 (G7) climate and energy meeting in Japan last month to warn that "the global LNG boom" must be stopped.
Campaigners say the continued expansion of LNG would harm communities that lie near fracking and drilling sites as well as LNG export terminals, while disregarding the warnings of scientists and energy experts who are unequivocal in their warnings that new fossil fuel extraction projects have no place on a pathway to keeping planetary heating under 2°C above preindustrial temperatures.
"If approved, this $500 million climate-wrecking handout would further threaten the air, land, and water of frontline communities in the United States and in Poland, making a mockery of Biden's purported commitment to environmental justice," said Rees. "A rapid buildout of 100% renewable energy is the only pathway to global energy security."
The DFC's potential approval of the project would mark the second time in less than a month that the Biden administration has agreed to finance new fossil fuel development. In May the U.S. Export-Import Bank approved nearly $100 million for the Balikpapan oil refinery in Indonesia.
U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel also spoke at a recent Alaska Sustainable Energy Conference about a proposal for an 807-mile gas pipeline across Alaska and an LNG export terminal that he claimed would be in the United States' economic and national security interests.
"LNG is a false solution that will intensify the climate crisis and increase the world's dependence on fossil fuels," wrote Kay Brown, Arctic policy director for Pacific Environment, at Common Dreams on Thursday. "LNG is methane compressed and chilled to make it easier to transport. Methane emissions are 80 times more damaging to the climate than carbon dioxide, in the short term."
While Biden said at COP26 and at the G7 meeting that he is committed to ending public financing for fossil fuel projects past 2022, the White House has not released guidance outlining how that promise will be kept.
"Biden's refusal to publish public guidance upholding the international fossil fuel pledge is enabling DFC to keep funding dirty fossil fuel expansion," said Rees. "In removing this massive handout to the U.S. LNG industry from its pending project list, DFC is following Biden's lead and keeping ongoing fossil fuel support hidden from the public eye."
"Today is a day of justice. It's a day of justice for those brave men of the SAS who stood up and told the truth about who Ben Roberts-Smith is—a war criminal, a bully, and a liar," said one of the journalists sued for defamation.
An Australian federal judge on Thursday ruled in favor of three newspapers sued for defamation by the country's most decorated living soldier, who the court found committed war crimes in Afghanistan, including the murder of civilians and unarmed prisoners.
Following harrowing testimony from fellow soldiers, Afghan civilians, and others, Justice Anthony Besanko of the Federal Court of Australia ruled that Fairfax Media newspapers The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, and The Canberra Times had "established the substantial truth" that former Special Air Service Regiment [SASR] Cpl. Ben Roberts-Smith is a war criminal who murdered four unarmed prisoners in Afghanistan.
Roberts-Smith—whose multimillion-dollar defense was bankrolled by billionaire Australian media mogul Kerry Stokes—is a recipient of the Victoria Cross for Australia, the nation's highest military honor, as well as other awards including the Medal for Gallantry and Commendation for Distinguished Service. He fought in the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"Today is a day of justice. It's a day of justice for those brave men of the SAS who stood up and told the truth about who Ben Roberts-Smith is: a war criminal, a bully, and a liar," Sydney Morning Herald and The Age journalist Nick McKenzie—a defendant in the suit—said following the ruling. "Today is a day of some small justice for the Afghan victims of Ben Roberts-Smith."
\u201cAustralia's most decorated living veteran was not defamed when accused of committing war crimes in Afghanistan, a judge has ruled \u2014 calling the allegations he killed unarmed prisoners 'substantially true.'\u201d— DW News (@DW News) 1685634121
Besanko found that in 2012 Roberts-Smith marched a handcuffed civilian prisoner named Ali Jan to a cliff in the southern village of Darwan and kicked him off the edge. Jan survived but was severely injured; Roberts-Smith ordered a subordinate soldier to execute the man.
"Ali Jan was a father, Ali Jan was a husband. He has children who no longer have a father. He was a wife who no longer has a husband," McKenzie said.
While Roberts-Smith argued Jan was a suspected Taliban scout, Besanko wrote that the soldier "murdered an unarmed and defenseless Afghan civilian," that he "broke the moral and legal rules of military engagement and is therefore a criminal," and that he "disgraced his country Australia and the Australian army by his conduct as a member of the SASR in Afghanistan."
In 2009, Roberts-Smith is alleged to have pressured a newly deployed soldier to execute an elderly Afghan man found hiding in a tunnel in order to "blood the rookie," according to the court. Roberts-Smith machine-gunned the man's younger disabled companion to death and then took his prosthetic leg back to Australia, where he encouraged fellow soldiers to drink beer from it, an act the court called "callous and inhumane."
\u201cCW: Afghanistan War Crimes\n\nAustralian soldier Ben Roberts-Smith kicked a handcuffed Afghan man off a cliff and then ordered him shot; shot a teenage prisoner point-blank in the head; and gunned down a disabled man, whose prosthetic leg SAS soldiers later used to drink beer.\u201d— Rebecca J. Kavanagh (@Rebecca J. Kavanagh) 1685599535
Besanko also found that Roberts-Smith bullied a fellow soldier, while finding that the papers did not prove an allegation that he punched a woman with whom he was having an affair in the face after a 2018 argument in Canberra.
University of Sydney professor David Rolph, a defamation law expert, told the Morning Herald that the court's judgment "is a comprehensive victory for the media outlets" and "a vindication of the journalism in question."
"Defamation losses have a chilling effect for the media, particularly for serious investigative journalism," he added. "This decision should give media outlets some confidence that they can undertake public-interest journalism and prevail."
Sen. David Shoebridge (Green-New South Wales) called Besanko's ruling "an important win for fearless journalism in the public interest."
"It's a tragic fact that private media companies, not any part of the federal government, have taken on the public task of telling the truth about Australia's war record in Afghanistan," Shoebridge told the Morning Herald. "The official silence must now end."
\u201c"@benmckelvey said Australia needs to launch a royal commission \u2014 akin to a U.S. congressional inquiry \u2014 to understand what went wrong.\n\nThe defamation trial, he said, was \u201cjust a little peek through the crack in the door.\u201d"\u201d— White Rose Society (Australia) (@White Rose Society (Australia)) 1685600983
In 2017, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation obtained leaked documents—known as the Afghan Files—detailing SASR war crimes such as the murder of unarmed civilians including children. A subsequent parliamentary probe confirmed the commission of war crimes by Australian troops in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016.
On Wednesday, Reutersreported Australian defense chief Gen. Angus Campbell was warned by the United States—which has a long history of war crimes in Afghanistan and other countries invaded or attacked during the open-ended War on Terror—that allegations of SAS atrocities could trigger the Leahy Law, which prohibits military assistance to countries that violate human rights with impunity.
Troops from other coalition forces—including Afghans, British, Germans, Polish, and Canadians—have committed or been complicit in atrocities during the Afghan war, as have Taliban, al-Qaeda, and Islamic State fighters.