The relatives and defense lawyers of 19 human rights lawyers currently facing subversion charges have written to China's parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), calling for an independent inquiry into breaches of legal process in the handling of their cases.
"The relevant authorities have brought charges such as 'incitement to subvert state power' against them in situations where there has been no breach of the law," the letter, signed by more than 140 lawyers and relatives, said.
"They have prevented them from seeing lawyers and not allowed them to communicate with lawyers or family members," it said.
"For this reason, we call on the NPC to set up an independent inquiry into the July 9 crackdown, and take immediate measures to correct these injustices and to prevent the trampling of the constitution and [Chinese] law," it said.
At least 317 lawyers, law firm staff, human right activists and family members have been detained, questioned, summoned or forbidden to leave the country since police began a nationwide operation targeting the legal profession on the night of July 9, 2015, according to figures compiled by a Hong Kong-based rights group.
While many have since been released, 19 have been formally arrested, mostly on subversion-related charges, the Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group (CHRLCG) said in a statement on its website.
Earlier this week, the authorities extended the six-month period of "residential surveillance" for detained Changsha rights lawyer Xie Yang, his lawyer told RFA.
In cases involving subversion charges, a law passed last year allows up to six months' "residential surveillance" at a secret location with no visits from lawyers or relatives.
Now, that period has been extended by police for an unknown length of time, and Xie is still denied a meeting with a lawyer, his defense attorney Zhang Zhongshi told RFA.
"I think that this 'extension' is just an excuse," Zhang said. "I think one reason for it is that they lack evidence, and the other is that they want to prevent him from seeing a lawyer."
A lawyer for prominent rights attorney Wang Quanzhang said his "residential surveillance" had also been extended.
"The bottom line is that they won't let him see a lawyer," Wang's lawyer Cheng Hai said. "He was under criminal detention for a month, then under formal arrest for two months, which should have been enough for them to wrap up the case."
"But he has been detained since last August, which is eight months, and with this one-month extension, that will be nine months," Cheng said.
"It's a clear indication that they are having problems finding evidence that proves the material facts of the case."
‘They didn’t inform me’
Similar treatment has been meted out to lawyer Li Heping, his wife Wang Xiaoling said, although the exact length of the extension remains unclear.
"They didn't inform me; I had to go and ask," Wang said. "I think this is a breach of the rules, and it's also a failure to take their duties seriously."
"They should be able to produce a written document in a case where the charges are so serious," she said.
Rights lawyer Lin Qilei, who signed the letter to the NPC, said the ruling Chinese Communist Party continues to deviate from accepted judicial processes.
"After the initial six-months of residential surveillance is up, the police should be done with their investigations, but instead they are just extending them," Lin said. "And each time they extend the detention, they are refusing to allow visits from lawyers."
"These are strong-arm tactics which they are using to persecute these people," he said.
The letter comes after a group of 12 countries issued a strong criticism of China at the United Nations over its human rights record, calling for the immediate release of the lawyers.
"We are concerned about China's deteriorating human rights record, notably the arrests and ongoing detention of rights activists, civil society leaders and lawyers," U.S. ambassador Keith Harper told the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on Thursday.
Little faith in Xi Jinping
CHRLCG spokesman Kit Chan welcomed the criticisms, saying people now have little faith in President Xi Jinping's promises to rule the country by law.
"This sort of international concern and attention is extremely important, particularly on the subject of the legal profession and those who practice law professionally," Chan said.
"Xi Jinping has promised many times in public that China will be ruled by law, and if he is sincere about those promises, he needs to listen to the calls coming from experts in the field and also from the international community," he said.
Harper, who was speaking on behalf of Australia, Britain, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Japan, Norway, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United States, agreed that the Chinese authorities are in breach of their own laws.
"These actions are in contravention of China's own laws, and international commitments," Harper told the Council.
He called on Beijing "to release all rights activists, civil society leaders and lawyers detained for peacefully exercising their freedom of expression or for lawfully practicing their profession."
He also hit out at the growing use of televised "confessions" on state television, saying they interfered with judicial process.
"These actions run contrary to fair trial guarantees enshrined in China's laws, and counter to the rights and freedoms set out in the universal declaration of human rights," Harper said.
Locking up critics
Last month, U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said China appeared to be locking up government critics regardless of whether they had committed a crime, and demanded it release those detained "immediately and without conditions."
After the detention of top rights attorney Wang Yu, her husband Bao Longjun, and their colleagues at the Beijing Fengrui Law Firm on the night of July 9, 2015, police launched a nationwide operation targeting hundreds rights lawyers and activists nationwide.
Wang is being charged with the more serious charge of "subversion of state power," while Bao's arrest is for the lesser charge of "incitement to subvert state power."
Incitement to subvert state power carries a maximum jail term of five years in less serious cases, and a minimum jail term of five years in cases deemed more serious, or where the suspect is regarded as a "ringleader."
"Subversion of state power" carries a minimum jail term of 10 years in cases where the person is judged to have played a leading role. Jailed Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo is currently serving a 13-year sentence for "incitement to subvert state power."
The activists arrested alongside the lawyers are typically people who participated in activities like staging small protests, complaining to the government about abuses, or helping human rights groups gather information, usually in their local community, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
China's National People's Congress, which runs from March 5-15 in Beijing, rarely debates and never opposes government policy, typically voting new laws through by near-unanimous margins.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.