Chinese lawyers fear draft law will muzzle them

BEIJING - Lawyers in China fear a proposal to make insulting or defaming court personnel a crime will restrict their freedom to defend their clients, a prominent advocate said Friday, weeks after the Communist Party pledged to ensure the "rule of law".

The revision to the criminal law, which would punish those who "seriously disrupt the order of the court" with a minimum three years in prison, was published soon after a key meeting of party leaders and top officials pledged to strengthen the rule of law "with Chinese characteristics".

Experts caution the concept refers to greater central control over the courts, rather than judicial independence.

The draft law penalises "insulting, defaming, or threatening a judicial officer" and "engaging in other acts that seriously disrupt the order of the court", which opponents criticise as vague and easily open to wide interpretation.

More than 500 lawyers signed an open letter delivered to the National People's Congress, China's rubber-stamp parliament, calling for the change to be scrapped.

"The draft law would create a toxic atmosphere in the courtroom and could be used as a tool to silence lawyers," Wang Quanping, one of the authors of the letter, told AFP.

"Criminal law must be specific, not subjective, and words like 'defaming' are too easily bent to suit an accuser's motives."

"If this amendment becomes law, it will severely restrict the ability of lawyers to defend their clients," Wang said.

The courts are subject to the ruling party, but the protesting lawyers said the proposed change "runs counter to the direction of China's judicial reform".

The amendment "will make lawyers feel the need to tread carefully, as if they were walking on thin ice," their letter said.