BEIJING China has drafted rules banning lawyers from drawing attention to cases through the internet and media, which critics say amounts to a gag order stopping them publicising controversial cases and miscarriages of justice.
China, where rule of law is paid lip service only, has stepped up pressure on freedom of speech and on the small band of rights lawyers and campaigners in recent months, and the latest move would be a further step in that direction.
Chinese lawyers have increasingly challenged the judicial system by exposing injustices ranging from undue interference by government officials to barring lawyers from meeting detained defendants.
The draft rules stipulate that lawyers cannot make "misleading" comments, issue open letters or incite demonstrations to pressure courts or judges to review decisions.
Criticism of the Chinese legal and political system, as well as the ruling Communist Party policy, will also be banned, and lawyers who break the rules will be punished, according to lawyers who have viewed the draft document.
The rules, proposed by the government-run All China Lawyers Association (ACLA), are a violation of freedom of speech as well as Chinese procedural laws, and a regression in the push for transparency in China's legal system, lawyers say.
"I think this is a great insult to the Chinese lawyer community, and it is absolutely unacceptable," said Wang Fu, a Beijing-based lawyer who has reviewed the proposed rules.
The ACLA did not respond to requests for comment.
The draft rules were circulated among certain lawyers in May to gather opinions, Wang Cailiang, a deputy director of the administrative law committee of the ACLA, told Reuters.
"Resistance (to greater transparency in the legal system) lies with certain people who violate the law, such as those who use torture to extract confessions or commit obvious miscarriages of justice. They fear exposure," Wang said.
"So there are certain forces that have been egging on the lawyers' association to issue regulations to ban lawyers from partaking in such exposures."
"FIGHT TO THE END" LAWYERS
The problem has its roots in the absence of an independent judiciary, which allows the party to yield undue influence over the courts, lawyers said.
Lawyers who fight judicial injustice often with the help of online platforms and media have been dubbed "fight to the end" lawyers by the public.
"This is very clearly targeted at suppressing 'fight to the end' lawyers as the restrictions are all about the methods they commonly use. If these methods are abolished, they will not be able to do much," another Beijing-based lawyer familiar with the draft rules said on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
One of China's most infamous recent miscarriages involved a mother who was sent to a labour camp after demanding justice for her daughter who had been raped.
With the help of rights lawyers the case soon went viral in China, and her sentence was overturned, causing huge embarrassment to the provincial court and officials who had originally ordered her put away.
If the proposed rules are put into force, such campaigns could be almost impossible to run, such is the wide scope of perceived offences lawyers could be punished for, including revealing information and opinions about cases on the internet.
The ACLA operates under guidance from the Ministry of Justice and enjoys the power to regulate and penalise lawyers, including expelling them from the membership of the body which operates as a de facto debarring.
However, the rules may not get approved.
"It's hard to tell if they will be passed," said ACLA's Wang. "Honestly, if the leaders of the ACLA and the judicial departments do not want to be condemned by history, they should not let them pass."
(Editing by Nick Macfie)