BEIJING Two Chinese human rights lawyers fought moves to disbar them at a hearing on Thursday, in a case that has drawn protests from attorneys and groups worried about pressure on those who challenge the government.
The lawyers, Tang Jitian and Liu Wei, said they could lose their right to practice after being accused by the Beijing municipal bureau of justice of "disrupting order in court and interfering with proper litigation procedure".
Both said they faced permanent disbarment over a court hearing in southwest China last year, when they defended a member of the banned Falun Gong sect and left the courtroom to protest what they said was judicial meddling.
They and their supporters said they were facing disbarment for taking up a politically sensitive case that riled officials. Falun Gong was banned in 1999 after its followers gathered in protest around the Chinese Communist Party's headquarters.
"This case is getting so much attention because it's really about the basic ability of rights defence lawyers to represent people in court," said Teng Biao, who represented the two lawyers at an administrative hearing before the Beijing bureau of justice, which oversees lawyers based in the city.
Tang, one of the lawyers facing disbarment, said: "In recent years, China's gone into reverse. The judiciary is paying more attention to politics, less to rule of law, and we felt we had to speak out."
Many Chinese dissidents and rights campaigners say that the ruling Communist Party has been imposing tighter controls intended to stifle legal challenges to government power.
Over the past decade, a loose network of Chinese lawyers has sought to use litigation mixed with publicity to challenge laws and policies restricting citizens' movements, rights to protest and powers to challenge official decisions.
Last year, a prominent legal rights advocate, Xu Zhiyong, was briefly arrested on tax evasion charges that his defenders said were trumped up to stifle his work. The charges were dropped after a public furore.
Authorities have refused to renew the annual registration of other rights lawyers.
Amnesty International said in an emailed statement that the case was one among many of Chinese "lawyers being interrupted or harassed to prevent them representing their clients and otherwise interfering with their work".
Repeated calls to the Beijing bureau of justice by Reuters were not answered, or officials said they knew nothing of the case. Chinese officials often say that human rights in their country have improved dramatically and the country's legal system respects the rights of the accused.
One of the lawyers facing disbarment, Liu Wei, said they both had no idea when the justice bureau would tell them whether they have lost their right to practice.
"I worry about the independence and neutrality of the process," she said. "But we can only wait and see."
(Editing by Benjamin Kang Lim)