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Lawyers threatened before Tiananmen anniversary

China has threatened to disbar as many as 20 lawyers known for taking sensitive human rights cases, several of the lawyers said yesterday, in the latest apparent clampdown on legal activists.

Lawyers said officials with justice agencies had issued warnings to leading members of law firms and that annual accreditations were yet to be issued, only days before the 1 June renewal date. The disbarments on technicalities would mark the broadest effort in recent years by the authoritarian government to rein in a growing number of activist lawyers.

"Before they used to pressure individuals but now they have turned to this more systematic method," said Tang Jitian, whose employer, the Anhui Law Firm in Beijing, was among those warned. "The justice departments say the lawyers who defend human rights are inharmonious or unstable elements, but I think they are the ones who are unstable."

Human Rights Watch said they believed the increased pressure was linked to official anxiety about potential social unrest this year over the 20th anniversary of the 1989 pro-democracy movement.