A number of prominent Chinese human rights lawyers being held on suspicion of subversion have allegedly "fired" their defense attorneys, but those familiar with the case said it was the authorities who terminated the defenders.
Rights lawyer Wang Yu, detained alongside her husband and several colleagues at Beijing's Fengrui law firm at the start of a nationwide crackdown that began on the night of July 9, 2015, canceled her instructions to her lawyer on Thursday.
Wang, who is being held on suspicion of "subversion of state power," fired her lawyer Wen Donghai, who only found out when he tried to
visit her at the Tianjin No. 2 Detention Center on Thursday.
Wen told RFA on Friday he has strong doubts about the claim, however.
"Firstly, they wouldn't produce written confirmation that Wang Yu has terminated her instructions to me," Wen said. "Neither would they let me visit Wang Yu to confirm it in person."
"Given the circumstances, I'd say it is the police who are firing us."
Wen said police had told him that any lawyer could only be hired if they had police approval.
"Basically, they are now hiring the lawyers; they won't allow the families to do it," he said. "This is ridiculous, and it is in breach of existing law on lawyers, and of the Criminal Procedure Law."
Meanwhile, lawyer Huang Hanzhong, who represents Wang's husband Bao Longjun, said he had received a similar notification after trying to visit his client at the Tianjin No. 2 Detention Center.
"Actually I had been expecting this, although I hoped it wouldn't happen," Huang said. "It shows what the attitude of the prosecuting authorities is; they are acting irrationally, unreasonable and illegally according to existing rules and legislation."
"As a lawyer, I strongly protest this blatant trampling of the law," Huang said. Bao is currently being held on charges of "incitement to subvert state power."
Wen said officials had refused to indicate which authority was behind the decision to "fire" the lawyers.
"[The official I spoke to], Li Bin wouldn't tell me ... which department he worked for, but he didn't look like a policeman ... he didn't wear uniform and he didn't show any ID," Wen said.
"He said he was [temporarily in charge of the case]. I have doubts about the identity of this Li Bin; I think he's just window-dressing."
In total, 17 of more than 300 lawyers detained and questioned since July 9 last year now face "subversion" charges, while four are charged with "incitement to subvert state power."
Another lawyer, Li Heping, has been charged with "assisting in the destruction of evidence," while legal and free speech activist Wu Bin, known by his online nickname The Butcher, is also charged with "incitement to subvert state power."
Li Heping's lawyers Cai Ying and Ma Lianshun were similarly "fired" when they tried to visit him in the Tianjin No. 1 Detention Center on Wednesday, Cai told RFA.
"They told me at the detention center that Li Heping have already terminated our instructions to represent him," Cai said. "We asked for written confirmation, but they couldn't give it to us."
"We tried again [on Thursday] to visit Li Heping, and handed the application directly to them, but they wouldn't take it," Cai said. "I wonder what they are playing at here?"
"It could be something to do with plans for a secret trial or secret detention."
Li Heping's wife, Wang Qiaoling, said she had never seen any proof that the order to fire the lawyers came from her husband.
"I don't recognize this verbal claim as valid," Wang said. "If you want to fire a lawyer, all you have to do is meet with them; it's very simple and straightforward."
"But the authorities are using unofficial channels, so I don't regard it as legitimate," she said.
Since the crackdown began, at least 317 lawyers, law firm staff, human right activists and family members have been questioned, summoned, forbidden to leave the country, held under house arrest or residential surveillance, criminally detained, arrested or gone missing, according to the Hong Kong-based Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group.
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.