Chinese authorities have formally arrested two lawyers and a legal assistant on possible subversion charges amid calls for the release of dozens of rights lawyers and their associates detained in a crackdown that began on July 9 last year.
Some 38 lawyers and activists associated with the Beijing Fengrui law firm have remained under "residential surveillance" since the crackdown started, many of them incommunicado and in unknown locations, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a recent statement.
The six-month deadline for many of the detainees falls this week, and the authorities must either release them or press ahead with formal charges, lawyers said.
Defense lawyer Lin Qilei told RFA that his client, rights lawyer Xie Yang, has has been formally arrested in the Changsha No. 2 Detention Center in the central province of Hunan, on charges of "incitement to subvert state power."
"Xie Yang's wife went to the Changsha police department, where they said that her written notification of formal arrest is in the mail, though she hasn't received it yet," Lin said.
"But they told her that he was formally arrested on Jan. 9, and they didn't reveal that he was in the No. 2 Detention Center until asked repeatedly," he said.
Lin said he had also been denied permission to visit his client in detention, on the grounds that a subversion case involves matters of "state security."
He added: "Xie Yang is innocent. This is a question of the authorities using the law to attack lawyers."
In Beijing, rights lawyer Xie Yanyi, who was detained on July 12 last year, is also being formally arrested on subversion charges, while the legal assistant to rights lawyer Li Heping, Zhao Wei, was formally arrested on the same day.
Fengrui rights attorney Liu Xiaoyuan said one of the firm's lawyers, Huang Liqun, its financial officer Wang Fang, and intern Xie Yuandong had now been released on "bail," although they have remained incommunicado.
"The firm hasn't confirmed any information to date, but we are assuming that anyone who hasn't been released by now is being formally arrested," Liu said.
"We don't even know exactly how many people have been released, but we have confirmed that Huang Liqun and Wang Fan got out on Jan. 7."
"I also ... heard by phone that our trainee lawyer Xie Yuandong got out, but we haven't managed to confirm this information," he said.
Li Wenzu, wife of Fengrui lawyer Wang Quanzhang, said she has had no word of her husband's whereabouts, although she and the relatives of Fengrui boss Zhou Shifang and legal trainee Li Meiyun had all received notification of their formal arrest on subversion charges last Friday.
"I am now faced with the darkness at the heart of the Chinese judicial system," she said. "I feel sad and frustrated, but I will keep up the fight, using every means at my disposal."
"I want to use legal procedures to fight this," Li said. "But I really don't hold out much hope."
Call for release
HRW called for the immediate release of all 38 lawyers and associates.
"The secret detention of dozens of lawyers makes a mockery of President Xi Jinping’s claims that China is governed by the rule of law," HRW China director Sophie Richardson said in a statement on the group's website.
"The failure to release all 38 by the six-month legal deadline would shred any credibility the government has on upholding its own laws," Richardson said.
After the detention of Wang Yu, her husband Bao Longjun, and their colleagues at Fengrui, police launched a nationwide operation targeting some 300 rights lawyers and activists nationwide.
The activists held have typically been people who participated in activities like staging small protests, complaining to the government about abuses, or helping human rights groups gather information, usually in their local community, HRW said.
It said most were threatened for supporting the law firm, which in recent years has employed lawyers undertaking rights defense work, and were then released after several hours.
Article 73 of the Chinese Criminal Procedure Law allows for the detention of criminal suspects in unknown locations, such as unused buildings or guesthouses, in cases the authorities say involve "endangering state security," "terrorism," and "major corruption."
But the ruling Chinese Communist Party's definition of "state security" is broad and vague, and such charges are often used to target prisoners of conscience and peaceful activists.
Lawyers who weren't detained, or who were held briefly for questioning and then released, have seen travel bans imposed on themselves and their close family members, including grown children who had planned to attend college overseas.
According to HRW, the assault on China's legal profession is part of a broader operation under President Xi Jinping that targets various elements of the country's civil society.
It said Xi's administration has also severely tightened control over freedom of expression, including on the Internet, in the media, and within higher education.
"Beijing’s hostility towards those who try to use the legal system as a check on state power has been on full display," Richardson said.
"But efforts to silence such lawyers and activists only amplifies their demands for justice. Beijing should start answering that demand by immediately releasing them," she said.
At the start of the year, China's embattled human rights lawyers signed an open letter calling for better treatment of their colleagues in 2016.
Sweden on Tuesday confirmed that the Chinese authorities have detained a Swedish national who worked on legal aid and rule of law issues, Reuters cited a spokesman for the Swedish embassy in Beijing as saying.
The man, who is in this 30s, had been detained, but has not been named. Spokesman Sebastian Magnusson said the embassy has been in touch with Chinese authorities about meeting man, who is in his thirties.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.