China rights lawyers say licenses blocked after Tibet call

BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese authorities have refused to renew the licenses of two outspoken human rights lawyers, the lawyers and an international group said on Friday, claiming the refusal was retaliation for speaking out about Tibet.

Teng Biao and Jiang Tianyong belong to a loose network of Chinese lawyers who often defend dissidents and protesters, and in April they signed a letter urging full legal protections for Tibetans accused of protests and deadly rioting in March.

The lawyers and the New York-based Human Rights Watch said the Beijing Judicial Bureau has repeatedly refused to renew their annual professional licenses, apparently as a warning to rights advocates who speak up about cases deemed politically sensitive.

“The bureau officials didn’t directly say why my license wasn’t approved,” Teng said by telephone. “But I know from what’s been said before that it was because of the Tibet issue.”

Jiang said his law firm had been told his license was being held up because he had been “representing sensitive cases”.

“All the other lawyers in my office have been approved, and it’s clear mine has been blocked because of my working on these cases,” Jiang said by phone.

“I think the Tibet letter was also a major reason.”

Jiang said Friday was the last working day for the usual renewal deadline of May 31, but officials had said they could reconsider his application in June if he “takes the right steps”.

“Obviously, they want me to drop any sensitive cases,” Jiang said. Neither he nor Teng is representing any Tibetans accused over the unrest, but both have said they were willing to.

Tension between the Chinese government and human rights critics at home and abroad has fallen into the background in past weeks after the country suffered a devastating earthquake. But the controversy is likely to flare again ahead of the Beijing Olympic Games in August.

“Beijing is trying to intimidate the legal profession,” Sophie Richardson, the Asia advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement emailed to reporters.

“The goals are to deter lawyers from representing human rights cases, and to deter firms from employing lawyers who want those cases.”

Other rights advocates have said they have been intimidated, beaten and detained for defending dissidents.

An official in the Beijing Judicial Bureau in charge of lawyers’ licenses, Feng Xinquan, said he was not authorized to speak with foreign reporters. He also refused to say who was authorized to discuss the claims.

The Chinese government has repeatedly said the protests and violence that erupted across Tibet in March were crimes orchestrated by followers of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader -- a claim he has rejected.

China has also said Tibetans accused of rioting are being given proper legal protections and fair trials.

Reporting by Jerry Norton