The whereabouts of Chinese legal aide Zhao Wei following her reported release from detention last week remained unclear on Thursday as her husband traveled to Zhao’s parents’ home in central China and found it empty.
Zhao’s lawyer, Ren Quanniu, meanwhile, remained under interrogation and was denied access to his attorneys, his lawyers said.
Zhao, 24, was working as an assistant to a top Beijing rights lawyer when she was swept up in a crackdown on hundreds of human rights lawyers and defenders that began on July 9, 2015.
She was held for nearly a year in the police-run Tianjin No. 1 Detention Center on suspicion of "incitement to subvert state power" and released on bail last week, according to a July 7 posting on the social media account of police in the northern city of Tianjin.
Zhao, however, remains unaccounted for, and a Hong Kong newspaper report that quoted her as saying she was resting with her parents in Henan province turned out to be incorrect.
Zhao’s husband, You Minglei, told RFA’s Cantonese Service that he traveled to the home of his wife’s parents in Jiyuan, Henan on Wednesday and found “nobody there.”
“Nobody, including her brother, sister-in-law and their kids is at home. The door, windows and even the blinds have been tightly shut. No clothes were hanging on the balcony,” he told RFA.
“The neighbors said they had not seen the family for a long time. I think that no one has been there for a while. I can only wait and there is no place I can get any news. Even if I try to check with other people, no one will tell me,” said a frustrated You.
You traveled to his in-laws’ home after Zhao was quoted in an interview with Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post as saying she was back at her home in Henan province and was staying with her parents.
“I arrived back in Fuzhou this morning. I was unable to see any family members of Zhao Wei,” You told RFA on Thursday.
The telephone interview with Zhao on Sunday in the English-language daily has raised suspicions, because in it she renounced her early work as a legal assistant to prominent human rights attorney Li Heping.
“I have come to realize that I have taken the wrong path. I repent for what I did. I’m now a brand new person,” she told the Post. The newspaper said it could not verify Zhao’s location or whether she was under surveillance during the interview.
Zhao's lawyer in detention
A tweet from her account earlier this week thanking her supporters and the “countless helpful and sincere uniformed police officers who worked on my case" had aroused suspicions that the message was dictated, or even sent, by police. But Zhao told the Post she had sent the tweets.
Zhao’s husband called on the newspaper to release audio of the interview.
“The SCMP’s report is only text. If their interview was via phone, I ask them to broadcast this audio file and let the public know,” You told RFA.
Zhao's defense lawyer Ren, who wasn’t allowed to meet with her during her year in detention, was detained last week after he went to Tianjin police to investigate reports that she was sexually abused in jail. He stands accused of “spreading rumors” after he looked into the sexual assault reports.
Ren’s defense lawyers, Chang Boyang and Zhang Junjie went to the detention center for two consecutive days to request a meeting with Ren but failed, Chang said.
"I just went to the detention center with attorney Zhang Junjie today to ask to see lawyer Ren, but we were not allowed to meet him. The reason is that investigators are still interrogating him,” he told RFA’s Mandarin Service on Thursday.
“We tried to visit him yesterday as well but were told that the investigators were still questioning him. And today they gave us the same answer. We protested against this refusal, requesting a meeting with Ren in 48 hours,” Chang said.
Ren’s wife has also been summoned for questioning, the lawyers said.
The year-old crackdown on China's embattled legal profession comes amid a broader clampdown on rights activists and non-government organizations (NGOs) campaigning for social justice.
Raids that began on July 9 and 10, 2015 of Beijing’s Fengrui law firm, where Zhao worked as an assistant, widened to include the detention and interrogation of some 319 lawyers, paralegals, law firm employees and rights activists.
Reporting by RFA’s Cantonese Service and Yang Fan for RFA’s Mandarin Service. Translated by Chen Ping and Wong Lok-to. Written in English by Paul Eckert.