Chuxiong, Yunnan— A court in China’s southwestern Yunnan province tried seven Christians falsely accused of cult participation on April 27 and forced many of them to fire their lawyers.
Liu Wei, Li Yunxiu, Hu Yuxin, Li Chunyu, Yao Jiaping, Zhong Yonggui, and Li Wanhong, all stood trial in Chuxiong, Yunnan, in late April, combatting charges of “organizing and using evil cults to disrupt law enforcement.” Authorities alleged that they participated in the Three Grades of Servants group, a religious organization the Chinese government regards as a cult, because they openly practiced their Christian faith. Li Guisheng, the lawyer hired to defend Li Wanhong, said officials coerced several of the defendants to fire their lawyers right before the trial and replace them with government-appointed lawyers. “Out of the seven defendants, originally only Hu Yuxin’s family said they did not want a lawyer. The others all had lawyers. Now, only three people have agreed to be represented by lawyers from outside [the government]. One is Liu Wei, one Liu Yunxiu, and the other is Li Chunyu. The others all accepted officially-appointed lawyers.”
Li Guisheng was one of the fired lawyers. He continued, “Lawyer Wang Yajun is ready to take over my job and defend Li Wanhong. Li Wanhong is a young woman born in 1994. Her parents are Christians. She is considered a primary defendant in the case. In the beginning, we communicated very well, and she told me that she didn’t commit any crimes. In the past four months, however, the court sent a notification to the detention centers, preventing the lawyers from meeting with the clients. In February, I went to visit my client at the detention center, and the guards blocked me.”
In mid-April, another lawyer tried to visit Li Wanhong but was refused on the same grounds. Of the incident, Li Guisheng said, “A woman surnamed Wen is the judge who presides over the criminal division. At that time, I was very angry. I said that the court should stop doing things under the table. They sent us notifications and acknowledged us as representative lawyers and, at the same time, notified the detention centers to turn us away. Judge Wen told me that it was Li Wanhong’s own intention to fire me that she wrote a note in January. I said that if the note was written in January, why did the court still recognize me as the representative lawyer and still send me the notifications until March?”
According to another lawyer, when the family-selected attorneys traveled to Chuxiong to sign their contracts, detention center officials turned them away, and one government agent claimed “two government-appointed lawyers have already taken over the case, and the court notified the detention centers to dismiss all lawyers.”
Before the hearing, the lawyers voluntarily hired by the defendants filed a complaint, demanding to meet with the accused, and the government finally granted their request. They asked that the bailiffs stand near the door, where they would be able to watch the defendants but not overhear their conversations. This sparked a fierce argument between them, and Wang Yajun was thrown out of the court before being invited back later.
During the prosecution process, the court accused the lawyers of “operating illegally” and “lacking the qualifications of a representative lawyer.”
Yunnan authorities began the crackdown on the Three Grades of Servants in 2016 and took 200 Christians into custody. Currently, 40 of them are still imprisoned, many have been harshly sentenced, and some of their lawyers have come arbitrarily under review. Last December, a court in Lincang, Yunnan, sentenced six Christians to up to 13 years in prison.