BEIJING — A prominent Chinese legal scholar whose rights group has tackled some of China's most politically sensitive cases, including a tainted milk scandal, has been accused of tax evasion following his arrest a week ago, his brother said Tuesday.
The detention of Xu Zhiyong comes as China appears to be widening a crackdown against activist lawyers and non-governmental organizations to stifle any dissent ahead of the 60th anniversary of the communist nation's founding on Oct. 1.
Last month, more than 50 Beijing lawyers, many of whom focus on politically sensitive human rights issues, had their licenses revoked. In addition, several non-governmental groups have recently been targeted by police for harassment.
Xu, who co-founded the Gongmeng legal aid organization, was taken from his Beijing home July 29 around 5 a.m. by several policemen. Another Gongmeng staffer, Zhuang Lu, was also detained.
On Tuesday, his brother Xu Zhihong told The Associated Press that officials from the Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications, where Xu Zhiyong taught, said they were notified that the scholar was being detained for tax evasion.
The People's Congress of Haidian district in Beijing, a local body of which Xu is a member, said it had approved his detention, his brother said. The approval is required because Xu is an elected official.
Xu Zhihong said he believed his brother was innocent of wrongdoing.
"He never thinks about himself and just wants to help others. The last time I talked to him on the phone was July 25. He told me that he didn't do anything wrong. He said 'Don't worry about me,'" Xu Zhihong said.
In mid-July, government officials shut down Gongmeng, also known as the Open Constitution Initiative, a legal aid and research organization that worked on public interest law. The group addressed issues including death penalty cases and the existence of unofficial "black jails."
Most recently, Gongmeng lawyers represented parents whose children were sickened last year after drinking milk contaminated with the chemical melamine. The tainted milk was blamed for the deaths of six babies and made nearly 300,000 other children ill.
The center's closure came after Beijing's tax bureau fined the group $206,000 because it said Gongmeng had failed to pay its taxes. Xu was scheduled to meet with tax bureau officials on July 30, the day after he was detained.
Gongmeng's problems highlight the issue that NGOs often face in China, said Phelim Kine, an Asia researcher with New York-based Human Rights Watch. Since it is extremely difficult to register as a non-governmental organization, many groups register as regular companies while existing in a legal gray area.
The government's use of the tax evasion charge with this case is troubling since many NGOs could be vulnerable, he said.
"This is an ominous development with regard to how the Chinese government may begin to resort to dealing with NGOs whose activities displease the government," he said.
Working within the system
Xu, 36, has been at the forefront of public interest law and legal reform in China. His legal scholarship has won him admirers abroad, and he has done several stints as a visiting scholar at Yale Law School in the United States.
Legal experts say Xu's plight is all the more troubling because Xu has never sought to actively oppose the government; instead his goal was to work within the current Chinese legal system.
"What Xu and (Open Constitution Initiative) have been doing is trying to use the tools of China's own laws to provide redress for grievances. He is working within the system. That's part of the reason why this case and his troubles are causing so much concern," said Paul Gewirtz, a law professor at Yale and director of The China Law Center.
Xu first rose to prominence in 2003 with the landmark Sun Zhigang case, where a 27-year-old university graduate died after being beaten during police custody. Sun had been detained under an extrajudicial system called custody and repatriation, where police had virtually unlimited authority to hold anyone if they did not have a residence permit for that area.
Sun's death set off a firestorm of national attention by local media. Xu and fellow legal scholars petitioned the National People's Congress, questioning the constitutionality of that system. Later that year, China abolished the system.
Teng Biao, another key human rights lawyer and member of Gongmeng, said Xu's detention would send a "clear signal" to other activists and NGOs.
"It will bring some fear. In the wake of Xu's detention, we're aware of bigger difficulties, and by doing our work, we should always prepare for the worst," he said.
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