China's relentless crackdown on rights attorneys and paralegals comes amid a further tightening of controls on civil society since the beginning of the year, according to a prominent rights group.
By 5.00 p.m. local time on Tuesday, the authorities had detained or questioned at least 242 people in a nationwide operation that began with a July 10 raid on the Beijing-based law firm Fengrui and the detention of a number of its staff.
A total of 12 lawyers and two non-lawyers are being held under criminal detention or residential surveillance at secret locations, the Hong Kong-based Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group (CHRLCG) said in a statement on its website.
Nine lawyers and several other staff members of Beijing's Fengrui law firm have been charged with disrupting public order and violating trial proceedings, according to ruling Chinese Communist Party newspaper the People's Daily.
Those detained include Wang Yu, her husband Bao Longjun, and Fengrui colleagues Wang Quanzhang, Liu Sixin and Xie Yuandong.
Zhou Shifeng, the firm's director, has pleaded guilty, according to official media, which said that the lawyers "disguised themselves as part of a disadvantaged group to blackmail the authorities for their own benefit."
Elsewhere, top Guangzhou rights lawyer Sui Muqing and Hunan-based Xie Yang have been charged with the more serious offense of "incitement to subvert state power," while Guangxi-based Chen Taihe is under criminal detention for "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble."
A further six people have "disappeared," including Fengrui lawyer Li Shuyun, who has been incommunicado for 11 days, the group said.
'Emergency red zone'
A survey carried out by the Hubei-based Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch group in the first half of the year found that the number of repressive incidents under China's "stability maintenance regime" stood at 95 points out of a maximum 100 points, in a scoring system that tries to measure the severity of official responses to civil-rights campaigns, petitions and popular protest.
"China's stability maintenance index scored 95 points in the first half of 2015, showing that the alert level is currently in the emergency red zone," the group said.
Hubei rights activist Wu Lijuan said the crackdown on lawyers is foremost in the minds of many of their former clients, who are often petitioners seeking some form of redress over official mistreatment or forced evictions.
"If we had the rule of law, then the Chinese government wouldn't be detaining so many lawyers," Wu said.
"If we had the rule of law, the Chinese government would allow ordinary people to express different opinions, and people wouldn't need to scale the Great Firewall to see accurate news reporting on the Internet," she said, in a reference to tight government censorship of what Chinese people can see online.
"They have made a huge fanfare about the anti-corruption campaign and they have detained a lot of officials, but they still haven't sorted out China's problems," Wu said.
Authorities seem to be casting their net to capture anyone even remotely connected to the Fengrui lawyers and their associates.
In the southwestern region of Guangxi, lawyer Chen Taihe has been placed under criminal detention, probably on the basis of his personal friendship with prominent detained lawyer Li Heping, his friend Tan Yongpei told RFA.
"He has never taken on any kind of political criminal case," Tan said. "Neither has he posted any material in support of Wang Yu or Zhou Shifeng. He has always kept quite a low profile."
"I think it's because he's close friends with Li Heping, and that's why they've detained him; it's like a chain," Tan said.
Lawyers now need lawyers
Meanwhile, many families of those detained have been left wondering how best to help them, now that the authorities have warned off many of their colleagues from involvement in their defense.
"Chen Taihe's wife doesn't want to get lawyers involved, but Chen Taihe won't get out of detention unless they do," Tan added.
He said the authorities are able, under existing laws, to hold in secret locations anyone under investigation for crimes linked to national security, including subversion charges.
"They can bring such charges like 'incitement to subvert state power.' and there is nothing to be done about it; then things get really difficult," Tan said.
"Sui Muqing is in the same boat as Xie Yang right now; if they get [indicted] for incitement to subversion, it could be another 10 years before they get out again."
Meanwhile, the wife of detained rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang penned an open letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping calling on the authorities to release her husband, who has been held since May 2014 on public order and "incitement to ethnic hatred" charges with no sign of progress towards a trial.
Citing official foot-dragging on requests for visits from his defense attorneys, Meng Qun wrote the letter in a bid to highlight the prolonged delays that have marked Pu's case, his lawyer Mo Shaoping told RFA.
"I don't think we can expect any effect on the outcome of his case, but it's a real problem that the detention center is behaving in this manner," Mo said.
"We are already in the trial phase of the case, and lawyers should be allowed to visit their client whenever they like," he said.
He said staff at the police-run detention center are still insisting that Pu's lawyers make appointments ahead of time, however.
"This is against the law, especially when they drag it out for more than 20 days once a request has been made," he said.
Fellow defense attorney Shang Baojun said the defense team is considering suing the police over the breach of procedural rules.
"If it goes on like this for a long time, we will definitely be suing them," Shang told RFA. "If we don't get to meet with Pu for a long period of time, it will affect communication between us and ... discussions about the best defense strategy."
He said the long-term detention of her husband had taken its toll on Meng's life, too.
"Meng Qun's work is going normally but her life has been affected, because her husband has been held for more than a year now," Shang said.
"We haven't been able to get a meeting with him since June 23. I don't know if [her] letter will change that," he said.
Reported by Wen Jian and Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.