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Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton litigation associate David Rush was a newly minted lawyer in 2002 when he took on his first Tibetan client, a teenager who claimed he was beaten and persecuted by the Chinese government for his religious beliefs. After helping the youth gain asylum in the United States six months later — “I practically ran around the office with joy,” Rush says — he has become a sort of go-to lawyer in the New York Tibetan community. So far, he has worked on 12 asylum cases for Tibetans; last year he logged more than 100 hours on Tibetan matters, earning him a place on the firm’s pro bono honor roll. Rush says he’s had a 100 percent success rate — “not a single person has been deported.” Perhaps it’s the distinct charm of the Dalai Lama or the star power of actor and Buddhist Richard Gere. Or maybe it’s because the long history of repression by the Chinese government is so well-known. For whatever reason, Tibetans seeking pro bono representation are getting plenty of help from major American law firms, including Arnold & Porter; Debevoise & Plimpton; Jenner & Block; Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe; Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison; Schulte Roth & Zabel; and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. Many of these firms also have long-standing relationships with Chinese clients. Cleary Gottlieb, for one, has an active transactional practice in China (it represented The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc., in a $2 billion sale of a Chinese company last year). Yet Rush says he’s “never been stopped” from working on a Tibetan matter. Good thing, because the Tibetans may need even more help. The latest flare-up with China occurred in March, when Chinese soldiers clashed with protesting monks in Tibet. Whether this crackdown will result in a flood of refugees seeking asylum from religious and political persecution remains to be seen, says Anwen Hughes. She’s the senior counsel of the refugee protection program for Human Rights First, an organization that helps asylum seekers. Generally, “we don’t have difficulty recruiting lawyers for our cases,” says Hughes, adding that there are no accurate statistics on the number of Tibetan asylum seekers (they are categorized together with Chinese dissidents). Judging from the impressive list of firms that have counseled Tibetans in recent years, there should be no shortage of help in the event of an uptick. One reason law firms are not shying away is that most of the work consists of individual asylum applications, which tend to be discreet. “They are not high-profile, because clients are concerned about their families back home,” says John Ackerly, president of the International Campaign for Tibet in Washington, D.C., a human rights advocacy group, whose pro bono counsel is Arnold & Porter. Moreover, “asylum cases are not for or against some country,” explains Ronald Tabek, the pro bono head of Skadden. “They are very individually fact-oriented.” Though Skadden has offices in Beijing and Hong Kong, Tabek says, “I’ve never been given instruction about asylum cases from any particular country.” Firms that steer clear of Tibetan pro bono tend to represent the Chinese government or entities closely affiliated with it. Patton Boggs, the lobbying giant that’s represented the Chinese embassy in the United States in recent years, is one such firm. Denise Vanison, the co-chair of Patton Boggs’ pro bono committee, says the firm “is sensitive to any conflicts that might arise” with the government. An immigration partner, Vanison says the firm actively handles pro bono asylum projects, including work for Nepalese and Ethiopian refugees. But even firms with established pro bono credentials can find themselves in hot water when they dump a pro bono client to appease a new patron. After winning the Beijing Olympic organizing committee as a client in 2002, Morrison & Foerster dropped its Tibetan asylum cases. MoFo partner Jack Londen, then head of pro bono, says the firm ultimately decided that it was a conflict to represent both sides. He adds that only a handful of Tibetan refugees were affected at the time. Londen says the firm took pains to ensure that the Tibetan asylum seekers got proper representation: “There was nobody who didn’t end up with great lawyers.” Most of the takers were other big firms, says Londen. But to Tibetan advocates, MoFo’s decision still stings. “I gave them a hard time,” says Dennis Cusack, a board member of the Tibet Justice Center and a partner at Farella Braun & Martel in San Francisco. To Cusack, MoFo’s retreat showed how Chinese business interests are shaping American pro bono policies. “We’d like to think that if American businesses engage with China, we can have a positive influence,” explains Cusack, “but MoFo’s decision meant we were the ones being ‘reformed.’ “ One firm that has taken a bold stance is Paul Weiss, which is handling Tibetan pro bono beyond the typical asylum case. Since last year, litigation associate Nima Taylor, whose mother is Tibetan, has been working on a genocide case against Chinese officials (defendants include Jiang Zemin, the former president of China, and Li Peng, its former prime minister) before the Spanish national court. As a member of a team headed by the Madrid-based Committee to Support Tibet, Taylor has been investigating facts and interviewing witnesses in the United States about alleged atrocities committed by the Chinese government against Tibetans. The case was brought in Spain under the theory of universal jurisdiction, which gives any state a right to prosecute individuals who commission crimes against humanity. “Spain has a track record of pursuing [crimes against humanity] cases,” explains Taylor. He adds that in 1998, the country charged Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet with crimes against humanity. (Pinochet was ultimately released on medical grounds and died in 2006 before facing charges.) The Tibetan case has been accepted by a Spanish magistrate and is at the fact-gathering stage. Despite the precedent-setting potential of the case before the Spanish court, and the firm’s many China clients, Taylor says Paul Weiss is standing behind him: “As a Tibetan American, these [human rights] issues are important to me, and I’ve received a lot of support from the firm.”

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