China's embattled human rights lawyers have called on the ruling Chinese Communist Party to improve its treatment of their colleagues in 2016.
By Dec. 30, authorities across China had detained, questioned, or otherwise sanctioned at least 316 rights lawyers, law firm employees, rights activists, and family members, the Hong Kong-based Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group said in a statement on its website.
The crackdown began with the detention of lawyer Wang Yu and her colleagues at Beijing's Fengrui law firm on the night of July 9, 2015, the rights group said.
Some 22 people remain under residential surveillance or house arrest, eight are being held under criminal detention, while four have "disappeared."
Some 20 people are believed to be being held on suspicion of "endangering state security," the group said.
The authorities have yet to inform the families of a number of those detained of their status and whereabouts, and those who are incommunicado have been so for up to 224 days in some cases, it said.
'A cold fear'
While 266 people have been released after initial detention or questioning, at least 30 of them, including close family members, have been denied permission to leave the country.
"Gradually, and at different times, the people around us have been taken from us and put in jail," the Association of Chinese Human Rights Lawyers, a mainland group, said in a statement to mark the New Year.
"There is a cold fear that has seeped into every corner of our lives, and the authorities are turning up the pressure, so we have very little room for maneuver," it said.
"But human rights lawyers have stayed steadfast through it all, remaining at the forefront of the rule of law and human rights [in China]," it said.
The group called on the government to protect the rights of all citizens under the terms of international rights covenants.
"We must stand up in the face of this omnipresent, omnipotent power and tell them that human rights are universal, and should apply to all human societies," the statement said.
"The spirit of the times is on our side," it said.
The wife of detained rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang, Li Wenzu, called on the authorities to release him as soon as possible.
"We definitely want him back at home as soon as possible, but we don't even know his status for sure, or what the authorities are planning, nor what the outcome will be," Li said.
"He has been a rights lawyer for so many years, and things have been so difficult," she said. "He is frequently the target of persecution."
"I am worried about his health and personal safety, and I have that worry hanging over me every day," she said.
"But we need people like him to advance the rule of law [in China]. What would happen if nobody did it?"
Hunan-based rights lawyer Cai Ying said the crackdown on lawyers comes amid a nationwide attack on freedom of expression by the administration of President Xi Jinping.
"The authorities are hoping that fewer and fewer people will speak out after this latest round of persecution," Cai said. "Some people have given up [rights work], while others are afraid to speak out."
"But some lawyers have kept going with courage, so they haven't achieved their aim."
And Guangdong rights lawyer Liu Shihui agreed, citing the targeting of nongovernment organizations (NGOs) throughout the year.
"There were a lot of people who fell victim to this in other human-rights related areas last year," Liu said. "The damage done to human rights work was broader and deeper than at any time in history."
Henan rights lawyer Chang Boyang said 2015 was a terrible year for human rights in China, and for the legal profession in particular.
"2015 was a year in which the rule of law was trampled underfoot," Chang said. "It was a year of disasters, and we should ... reflect on that."
"I hope that the rule of law will find a new direction in 2016."
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.