Chinese Christians in Yunnan province who are being tried in court for their alleged involvement in a cult were reportedly forced to fire their attorneys to be replaced by government-appointed lawyers.
According to China Aid, seven Christians went to court in Chuxiong late last month to defend themselves against the charge of "organizing and using evil cults to disrupt law enforcement."
The defendants — Liu Wei, Li Yunxiu, Hu Yuxin, Li Chunyu, Yao Jiaping, Zhong Yonggui, and Li Wanhong — are allegedly members of the Three Grades of Servants group, which has been designated by the government as a cult because the members openly practice the Christian faith.
A lawyer for one of the accused has claimed that government officials have compelled some of the Christians to dismiss their attorneys so that they can be defended by the ones appointed by the government.
"Out of the seven defendants, originally only Hu Yuxin's family said they did not want a lawyer. The others all had lawyers. Now, only three people have agreed to be represented by lawyers from outside [the government]. One is Liu Wei, one Liu Yunxiu, and the other is Li Chunyu. The others all accepted officially-appointed lawyers," attorney Li Guisheng said, according to China Aid.
Li Guisheng, who was one of the lawyers dismissed by a client, said that he was prevented from seeing his client.
The lawyer narrated that his client, Li Wanhong, had previously insisted that she was innocent when he was able to visit her in detention.
"In the past four months, however, the court sent a notification to the detention centers, preventing the lawyers from meeting with the clients. In February, I went to visit my client at the detention center, and the guards blocked me," Li Guisheng recounted.
Another lawyer reported that the attorneys selected by the families of the accused tried to visit the detention center to sign their contracts, but they were turned away by officials at the facility.
One government agent reportedly told the attorneys that the court has dismissed all the lawyers and that government-appointed lawyers have already been assigned to the case.
As many as 200 Christians were taken into custody in 2016 when the authorities started cracking down on the Three Grades of Servants.
In January, several of the defendants received lengthy prison sentences ranging from four to 13 years for their supposed cult activity.
Ju Dianhong, who was sentenced to 13 years, was accused of leading the Three Grades of Servants and recruiting members, but she insisted that she has never heard of the group.
At the time, the lawyers of the accused were reportedly notified that they will be put under investigation because they have been suspected of "illegally" defending their clients.