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A splinter group of Chinese lawyers, frustrated by official interference in their work, is pushing Beijing's government-controlled bar association to hold open elections, complaining that the organization doesn't safeguard their rights.

The disaffected lawyers have in recent days circulated petitions online, sent text messages and letters, and tried to mobilize their colleagues to urge the Beijing Lawyers' Association to hold free and fair elections for senior officers later this year.

Their campaign faces long odds. Only 56 out of Beijing's 16,000 lawyers have so far signed up.

But their struggle highlights the growing assertiveness of lawyers in a legal system tightly controlled by the communist government. Activist lawyers have in recent years been at the forefront of the fight to use the law to press for civil liberties and combat abuses of power. At least one other association has already started to have more open elections.

"I think it's indicative of these larger battles just for the bar associations themselves to become more autonomous, more professional, and more representative of the lawyers' interest," said Randy Peerenboom, a law professor at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.

Lawyers engaged in cases considered politically sensitive have been harassed and intimidated and sometimes had their licenses revoked. Last year one noted rights attorney in Beijing, Li Heping, was forced into a car by unidentified men who then beat him with electric batons.

Tussles between lawyers and authorities are made worse, lawyers and rights activists said, because bar associations often act in the government's interests or at least are powerless to intervene on behalf of their members.

In Beijing, lawyers say the association is generally secretive about its proceedings and is beholden to the city's Justice Bureau.

Police in the southern city of Haikou denied Cheng Hai, an attorney who signed the petition, permission in June to see two clients being detained in a land dispute, despite laws that guarantee lawyers' rights to meet their clients. Cheng said he did not ask his association for help because it did not do anything in 2006 when he was being pressured to drop a high-profile case — the defense of a blind activist.

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