More than 200 lawyers and rights activists across China have signed an open letter to the country's parliament, which opens its annual session in Beijing this week, calling for the immediate release of 19 human rights lawyers held in a nationwide police operation since last July.
"To date, 19 lawyers, law firm staff or rights activists have been formally and obviously arrested," said the letter, addressed to the National People's Congress (NPC).
"None of those arrested or held under residential surveillance have been allowed visits from their relatives or their lawyers," it added.
The letter said: "These lawyers were brave enough to take on sensitive cases and to fight them using rational argument, with respect and a sense of justice."
"Because of this, they won the trust and support of large numbers of people trying to protect their rights, and because of this they were charged with subversion, or incitement to subvert state power, and even had their names smeared by reports in the People's Daily and Xinhua news agency," it said.
The letter called for the immediate and unconditional release of all detained in the crackdown, which began with the detention of rights lawyer Wang Yu, her husband Bao Longjun and colleagues at the Beijing Fengrui law firm on the night of July 9, 2015.
Shanghai-based signatory Wang Jianhua said he signed because he believes the detained lawyers have done nothing wrong.
"I think these lawyers are on the side of justice, because they spoke the truth," Wang said. "The whole point of a lawyer is to help their clients, [not the government]."
"This government won't tolerate any kind of dissent," he said. "The lawyers are innocent, and they should practice what the preach when it comes to the rule of law, which doesn't exist here at all."
"I think they should release the whole lot of them."
From July 9 through Feb. 19, 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 and residential surveillance, criminally detained, placed under formal arrest or have simply gone missing, the Hong Kong-based Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group said in a statement on its website.
Most have since been released, but 19 face subversion-related charges, while nine are on "bail," one is under house arrest, and 33 have been slapped with travel bans, it said.
Petitioners gather in Beijing
The open letter came after a delegate to the NPC's advisory body, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), told the Beijing News that the recent use of televised 'confessions' by detained activists and other dissidents is prejudicing the judicial process.
Such practices could easily give rise to "trial by media," and undermine judicial independence, the delegate said.
The CPPCC opens in Beijing on Thursday, with the NPC's annual session following suit on Saturday. Delegates are frequently derided on social media for parading themselves in high-end designer brands, for falling asleep during speeches, and for routinely rubber stamping any measures proposed by the powerful NPC standing committee.
Authorities in the Chinese capital have tightened security ahead of the annual parliamentary sessions in a bid to prevent a deluge of complaints and petitions.
Several hundred petitioners have already been removed in city-wide security sweeps, petitioners told RFA on Wednesday.
But several thousand remained gathered outside the State Council complaints office in Beijing, as petitioners called on the government to amend a set of 2005 rules forbidding them from taking complaints against local officials to higher levels of government.
Activist Xu Qin, of the Jiangsu-based Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch, said the letter had garnered more than 100 signatures since being posted online on Tuesday.
"We have three reforms that we'd like to see, because these petitioning rules are in reality a bottomless pit," Xu said.
He said local governments have sent large numbers of "interceptors," to Beijing, charged with detaining petitioners from their hometowns and escorting them back, often to face arbitrary detention in "black jails."
Sichuan-based petitioner Yuan Ying said many petitioners are still heading towards the capital in the hope of winning redress for their grievances, many of which have now dragged on for years.
"They are hoping that their issues will get resolved during the parliamentary sessions," Yuan said. "This has been going on since January."
"There were around 1,000 petitioners outside the State Council complaints department [today], and around 1,000 interceptors as well," she said.
"The police are checking people's ID, and taking the detainees to Jiujingzhuang before being sent home," she said in a reference to a large-scale unofficial detention center on the outskirts of Beijing.
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.