China charged more than 1,000 people with crimes involving state security and terrorism last year, twice as many as in the previous year, prompting warnings of widespread abuses from a U.S.-based rights group.
Chinese courts convicted 1,419 people on crimes linked to "endangering state security" and "terrorism," in 2015, nearly double the 712 convictions produced in the previous year, Supreme People's Court chief Zhou Qiang said in an annual report to the country's parliament this month.
While Zhou made no attempt to explain the sudden rise in convictions, he said the courts are targeting "criminals who instigate secessionist or terrorist activities."
According to the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), Zhou's figures include large numbers of people targeted solely for their peaceful criticism of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
"China’s doubling of prosecutions for state security and terrorism last year says more about the government’s crackdown on peaceful dissent than it does about threats to national security," HRW China director Sophie Richardson said in a report on the group's website.
"The authorities have increasingly used these charges to prosecute peaceful critics and legally protected activities, often employing vague interpretations of threats to the state," she said.
"The deeply politicized judicial system makes it virtually impossible to challenge such charges," Richardson added.
HRW warned that state security and terrorism charges are especially hard to defend against in Chinese courts
Such charges also give ample opportunity for further abuses of detainees' human rights, it said.
Anyone detained on state security charges can be held incommunicado in an unknown location under "residential surveillance" for up to six months and denied access to a lawyer.
Such "suspects" are forced to use government-appointed lawyers in their trials and rarely allowed to call witnesses in their defense, HRW said.
It also pointed to a growing tendency by the government to parade detainees on state television, apparently "confessing" their guilt, even before their cases come to trial.
Among those caught up in the "state security" dragnet are at least 19 human rights lawyers detained in a nationwide police operation which began with the detention of Wang Yu, her husband and colleagues at Beijing's Fengrui law firm on the night of July 9, 2015.
Chinese rights lawyer Liu Zhihui said the crackdown had had a chilling effect on the rest of the country's embattled legal profession.
"Yes, it has definitely had an effect," Liu said. "There is now much less leeway for lawyers to speak out in court and for them to conduct a defense."
"Of course this was going to be the case; it was predictable."
Two months earlier, outspoken political journalist Gao Yu was jailed for "leaking state secrets overseas," while a court in Guangzhou tried three activists – lawyer Tang Jingling, writer Yuan Xinting, and teacher Wang Qingying – on charges of "incitement to subvert state power."
Ninety-nine percent conviction rate
According to Zhou's report, Chinese courts convict in more than 99 percent of cases, acquitting just 1,039 of the 1.2 million people who stood trial in 2015.
And there is no sign of any let-up in the crackdown, HRW said, citing China’s top prosecutor Cao Jianming's vow to "firmly crack down on attempts by hostile forces to infiltrate and damage the country."
Official ideology under President Xi Jinping increasingly takes the line that any opposition to the government or Communist Party originates and is fomented outside China, HRW said.
"Cao’s remarks raise concerns that domestic civil society groups receiving foreign funding or with connections to groups abroad may face renewed harassment and threats from the authorities," the group warned, citing the case of Beijing-based Swedish rights worker Peter Dahlin, who "confessed" on television to helping fund legal challenges to government decisions after his detention.
Dahlin was expelled from China after his non-government organization (NGO) was accused by officials of receiving foreign funding to training "agents" to "endanger state security," but his Chinese colleague Wang Quanzheng remains in police detention.
Sichuan-based rights activist Huang Qi, who founded the Tianwang rights website, said groups like his are now under huge pressure from the Chinese authorities on the hunt for "hostile forces."
"Local officials hate NGOs with a passion, because they help local people defend their rights, and so they are now cracking down on them with a vengeance," Huang told RFA.
"That's why we call on the central government to pay attention to the views of ordinary people, if we are to get any objectivity or justice in ... court judgments," he said.
As the HRW report was published, Wuhan-based activist Liu Xinglian of the China Human Rights Observer group was removed from a detention center where he had been held since last June on suspicion of "incitement to subvert state power."
Liu's 'disappearance' was discovered on March 11 after two supporters tried to take money to him in the Wuhan No. 2 Detention Center, only to be told he was no longer there.
China Human Rights Observer activist Xu Qin said Liu's move may mean that he has been tried and sentenced in secret, before being moved to a "registration center" before starting his prison term.
"The employee said he had gone to the registration center, which I think means that he has been sentenced, because they only send people there who have already been sentenced," Xu told RFA.
No information for outside world
An employee who answered the phone at the detention center on Wednesday declined to comment on Liu's destination.
"We don't give out information to the outside world here," the employee said.
Liu founded the Rose China rights website in 2014, which is closely affiliated with the China Human Rights Observer, and which has published a series of open letters to President Xi Jinping calling for democratic change.
Meanwhile, veteran democracy activist Qin Yongmin, his wife and two of her family members have been incommunicado since Jan. 19, 2015, Rose China activist Pan Lu told RFA.
"On March 19, it will be 14 months since they disappeared," Pan said. "That includes Qin's wife Zhao Suli, Zhao's 87-year-old father and her daughter, all of whom have disappeared."
"But there has been no information on them whatsoever from the authorities here in Wuhan."
Qin, a founding member of the China Human Rights Observer group, is also a director of Rose China, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
According to HRW, a draconian new National Security Law passed last July employs sweeping definitions that are against the principles of international law.
"The broad, catch-all terms are contrary to international law, which requires specific threats to state security to be narrowly defined," the group said.
"Human Rights Watch urged the Chinese government to immediately review all 2015 prosecutions on state security and related charges," it said.
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.