BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese rights lawyers and activists say the promotion on Monday of former police official Fu Zhenghua to head China’s justice ministry signals an even deeper freeze on attempts to use the country’s legal system to defend against rights abuses.
Lawmakers at China’s annual meeting of parliament rubber-stamped the appointment of Fu, previously a deputy head of China’s ministry of public security, to take charge of the department in charge of maintaining and improving China’s legal system. Fu was preceded by Zhang Jun, who is now head of the state prosecutor and courts.
Long seen as a rising star in law enforcement, Fu led a number of high-profile investigations and crackdowns, including the probe into former security czar Zhou Yongkang, who was found guilty of corruption.
Since 2015, he headed an office dedicated to the suppression of what the ruling Communist Party calls “evil cults”, including the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong.
Fu’s self-described “heavy fist” approach to law enforcement has won him plaudits from Chinese state media, which has previously said his campaigns helped clean up Chinese society and tackle graft.
Rights groups have called for the United States to target Fu with sanctions under the Magnitsky Act, which authorizes the U.S. government to freeze assets of those responsible for gross human rights violations.
A coalition of 23 groups coordinated by Washington-based Human Rights First asked the United States to impose sanctions against Fu and two other police officers for their role in overseeing the detention of activist Cao Shunli, who died in custody in 2013.
“Fu Zhenghua has presided over a number of serious human rights violations throughout his career,” said Frances Eve, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Chinese Human Rights Defenders.
“Fu’s appointment is a sign that the Xi Jinping regime is not going to back down on its suppression of human rights.”
Neither China’s justice department or public security ministry responded to faxed requests for comment about rights activists concerns and complaints over Fu’s appointment.
China regularly rejects foreign criticism of its human rights record, saying that its people are best placed to judge the rights situation in China and that the country is governed by law.
The United States imposed sanctions on one officer, Gao Yan, in December last year. Gao had been in charge at Chaoyang Detention Centre in Beijing where a Chinese rights activist, Cao Shunli, was held and questioned prior to her death in hospital under police custody in March 2014.
Rights groups say Cao was tortured and denied medical care. Gao could not be reached for comment.
China said that the United States should not be a “human rights judge”, after the sanctions against Gao were announced.
President Xi Jinping has overseen clampdown on all forms of dissent in Chinese society, which has seen hundreds of rights lawyers and activists detained and dozens jailed.
The announcement last month that China would scrap presidential term limits, which was approved by parliament last week, was met with despair by many of China’s rights activists who were holding out hope that the tightening was temporary.
Rights groups say that the justice department has increasingly disbarred lawyers who challenged official abuses of power, after rules for law firms and lawyers were revised in 2016 to require greater political loyalty.
At least six lawyers have been disbarred in the last six months, according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a practice that was previously less common. Reuters has confirmed four of the disbarments.
The government did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the disbarments.
Dozens of people, including rights lawyers and their family members and supporters, took to social media after Fu’s promotion was announced to make sarcastic comments about his new role being a boon for the rule of law in China.
Fu’s moving from law-enforcement to being in charge of legal affairs at least means he would no longer be in charge of arrests, only disbarments, Wang Qiaoling, the wife of prominent rights Lawyer Li Heping, joked on the messaging platform WeChat.
“He has in the past arrested my husband, made him disappear, tortured him... Now he can only revoke or cancel his license and invite him for talks,” she said.
Li was handed a three year suspended jail sentence for subversion in 2017.
The government declined to comment about the sarcastic reaction Fu’s promotion has triggered.
(This story has been refiled to correct typo in Cao Shunli’s name in paragraph 7)
Reporting by Christian Shepherd; Editing by Tony Munroe and Alex Richardson