BEIJING (AFP) - More than 500 lawyers in China have signed a protest letter against a proposal to make insulting or defaming court personnel a crime, with a prominent advocate saying Friday it would restrict their freedom to defend their clients.
The revision to the criminal law would punish those who "seriously disrupt the order of the court" with a minimum three years in prison.
It was published soon after a key meeting of Communist Party leaders and top officials pledged to strengthen the "rule of law with Chinese characteristics" - which experts caution refers to greater central control over the courts, rather than judicial independence.
The draft law penalises "insulting, defaming, or threatening a judicial officer" and "engaging in other acts that seriously disrupt the order of the court", which opponents criticise as vague and easily open to wide interpretation.
In a rare instance of organised protest, an open letter delivered to the National People's Congress, China's rubber-stamp parliament, calling for the change to be scrapped has gathered the signatures of 529 lawyers.
"The draft law would create a toxic atmosphere in the courtroom and could be used as a tool to silence lawyers," Wang Quanping, one of the authors of the letter, told AFP.
"Criminal law must be specific, not subjective, and words like 'defaming' are too easily bent to suit an accuser's motives." "If this amendment becomes law, it will severely restrict the ability of lawyers to defend their clients," Wang said.
The country's courts are subject to the ruling party, but the protesting lawyers said the proposed change "runs counter to the direction of China's judicial reform".
The amendment "will make lawyers feel the need to tread carefully, as if they were walking on thin ice," their letter said.
Outspoken lawyers have been among the most high-profile detainees as the government steps up a campaign against its critics, including prominent legal expert Xu Zhiyong, who was jailed for four years in January, and celebrated human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who was held in May and has not been released.