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China Detains Prominent Legal Activist
The Wall Street Journal[Friday, July 31, 2009 11:26]

Renewed Clampdown on Dissent Comes Before Country's 60th Anniversary of Communist Party's Founding

Xu Zhiyong, co-founder of a legal advocacy group called the Open Constitution Initiative (AFP/File)
Xu Zhiyong, co-founder of a legal advocacy group called the Open Constitution Initiative (AFP/File)
Chinese authorities detained a prominent legal activist, escalating a clampdown on dissent ahead of the politically sensitive 60th anniversary of the founding of Communist Party rule.

Xu Zhiyong, co-founder of a legal advocacy group called the Open Constitution Initiative, was taken from his home in northwestern Beijing at 5 a.m. Wednesday by a uniformed police officer and five plainclothes men, according to a report posted on the group's Web site Thursday. The group said another of its staffers, Zhuang Lu, has been unreachable since Wednesday.

A person who answered the phone at the Open Constitution Initiative's office Thursday afternoon said Mr. Xu's whereabouts were unknown and the reasons for his detention were unclear. Mr. Xu's mobile phone was turned off, and his blog was last updated Tuesday night.

Officials at the Beijing Public Security Bureau couldn't be reached to comment.

Mr. Xu's detention is the latest setback for Chinese rights activists. Human-rights groups say 53 lawyers, many of whom take on civil-rights cases, have been effectively disbarred this year by local judicial authorities. On Thursday, the Yirenping Center, a legal aid group focused on fighting discrimination against people who have hepatitis B, was raided by authorities on suspicion of engaging in unlicensed publishing activities, according to the Associated Press.

In June, the government formally arrested Liu Xiaobo, one of China's most prominent advocates for political change, on allegations of subversion. And the government in recent months has increased its efforts to censor what it considers politically or morally subversive sites on the Internet.

Phelim Kine, an Asia researcher at the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the detention of Mr. Xu is "the latest in an ongoing campaign against human-rights defenders." He said it is unclear what the reasons are for the increased activity, or whether it is because of official concerns about disruptions of the 60th anniversary of founding of the People's Republic of China on Oct. 1, which is intended to be a celebration of party rule.

Mr. Xu has been the driving force behind the Open Constitution Initiative, known in Chinese as Gongmeng, an association of volunteer lawyers, scholars and activists established in 2003. The group describes itself as "committed to building a modernized China and promoting human rights, democracy and rule of law." It has taken on sensitive cases, such as those of the families of children who were sickened in last year's melamine-tainted milk scandal. In May, the legal group released a provocative report on Tibet that challenged Beijing's official position on the causes of deadly riots last year in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa and other Tibetan parts of China.

In July, the initiative ran into trouble with authorities for improper registration and failure to pay taxes. The advocacy group had been licensed as an ordinary company because of the difficulties faced in registering nonprofit organizations in China, and Beijing tax officials charged it with failure to pay taxes on contributions received and demanded payment of fines of 1.4 million yuan, or more than $200,000. A hearing was held on the matter last week but no final decision had been reached, Mr. Xu said on July 24. The group said Mr. Xu was supposed to meet with tax officials on Wednesday and Thursday, but didn't appear.

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detained prominent legal activist (pedhma)
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