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BEIJING (AP) — The Chinese government said Wednesday that lawyers are now required to swear allegiance to the Communist Party, a move criticized by prominent human rights lawyers who have defended the authoritarian government’s critics.

The Ministry of Justice said in a notice posted on its website that first-time applicants or lawyers requesting renewals of professional legal licenses must take an oath of loyalty to the country, the Communist Party and the people.

The oath is intended to raise the political, moral and professional quality of the country’s lawyers, the notice said.

“I pledge to faithfully fulfill the sacred mission of a worker of the socialist system of laws with Chinese characteristics, be loyal to the homeland, loyal to the people, support the leadership of the Communist Party of China,” part of the oath reads.

Legal reformers say the government under Chinese President Hu Jintao has undermined rule of law by promoting a campaign that says the party and people’s interests must be placed above the letter of the law.

Chinese authorities have in recent years stepped up harassment of legal activists who have tackled some of the most politically sensitive cases in the country.

Last year, amid government efforts to prevent the growth of an Arab-style protest movement, Chinese authorities suspended or revoked lawyers’ licenses to stop them from taking sensitive cases, such as defending pro-democracy dissidents or government critics. Some lawyers were attacked and secretly detained.

Jiang Tianyong, a rights lawyer who was taken away by state security for two months last year, said the Justice Ministry had no legal basis on which to introduce the oath.

“It is ridiculous for such a thing to occur in modern society. It’s unimaginable that any other country would like to ask lawyers to pledge allegiance to a party. Lawyers should respect laws and uphold the rights of their clients,” said Jiang, who worked on cases involving AIDS activists and freedom of religion.

One of the most high-profile targets of the crackdown on rights lawyers over the past few years is Gao Zhisheng, a charismatic and pugnacious lawyer who represented religious dissenters and advocated constitutional reform.

Gao, who has been missing for more than a year and a half, has drawn international attention for the unusual length of his disappearance and for his earlier reports of torture he said he endured in detention.

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Follow Gillian Wong on Twitter at http://twitter.com/gillianwong

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