Authorities in the southern Chinese province of Hunan have jailed a prominent environmentalist on charges of "revealing state secrets" in a move that activists said is likely a form of political revenge.
Liu Shu was taken away from her home in the provincial capital Changsha on Sunday night and sentenced to 10 days' administrative detention for "revealing state secrets related to China's counterespionage work."
Liu founded and runs the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Shuguang, which has campaigned for compensation and redress for victims of environmental pollution.
A Shuguang volunteer who asked to remain anonymous appeared to suggest that Liu's detention had political implications.
"This is a pretty sensitive topic, and it's not easy for us to give media interviews right now," the volunteer said. "As you can see from the online information, this involves matters of state security, and our lawyer is currently following up the matter."
Asked what aspects of Liu's work had touched on matters of "national security," the volunteer said a number of environmental issues might be considered highly sensitive information by Chinese officials.
"Issues to do with threats to public health, for example the investigation into levels of heavy metals in the waters of Dongting Lake," the volunteer said.
Asked if Liu's computers and other possessions had been seized, the volunteer said: "In matters of state security, there are certain processes which must be followed, but unfortunately we can't discuss the details with you."
Hunan-based rights lawyer Wen Donghai said the charges against Liu looked highly dubious.
"This so-called counterespionage that they are talking about ought to indicate military matters, and people or organizations beyond China's borders spying on them," Wen said.
"Environmental pollution is a globally recognized problem, and one that people are working hard to rectify," he said. "It is a social issue, and has nothing to do with the safety of the regime."
"These charges are definitely trumped up, and the police are abusing their powers," he said.
A source close to the situation told RFA that Liu stands accused of supplying data to an unidentified contact about environmental pollution.
"If this proves to be true, then this is a serious violation of her rights," the source. "It's also a serious attack on the freedom of expression."
A police-run committee can hand down administrative sentences of up to 15 days to perceived troublemakers without the need for a trial.
However, such sentences may also be converted to criminal detention, resulting in a lengthy spell in a police-run detention center while investigations are carried out.
Worsening levels of air and water pollution, as well as disputes over the effects of heavy metals from mining and industry, have forced ordinary Chinese to become increasingly involved in environmental protection and protest, according to a 2013 report from the Friends of Nature group.
Many ordinary citizens have been prompted into action by China's environmental crisis, sparking a rise in "mass incidents" linked to pollution, while environmental groups have raised growing concerns over the falsification of pollution testing and environmental impact assessments.
Campaigners say that China has an exemplary set of environmental protection legislation, but that close ties between business and officials mean that it is rarely enforced at a local level.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Siu-san and Lam Lok-tung for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.