Concerns are mounting over the continued detention of three prominent Chinese rights defenders all detained or "disappeared" last month, rights group said.
Prominent Beijing rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong, Sichuan-based Tianwang website founder Huang Qi and Hubei-based rights activist Liu Feiyue have all been incommunicado since mid-November, amid growing calls for official confirmation of their status.
"Police are believed to be holding the men in unknown locations, raising fears that they are at risk of torture," the overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) said in a statement on its website.
"The detention and disappearance in quick succession of these well-known leading figures of China’s rights defense movement further signal the escalation of President Xi Jinping’s relentless crackdown on civil society," it said.
According to a statement from Jiang's family posted on the Human Rights in China website: "The family cannot accept the fact that Jiang is being administratively detained—or criminally investigated—merely because of his visit with a fellow lawyer’s family in Changsha or for trying to help them find out more about that lawyer’s detention."
Attempts by Jiang's family to hire him a lawyer have resulted in foot-dragging by the authorities, with repeated requests that the lawyers "prove" their relationship to the family, and the relationships within Jiang's family, they told RFA.
Jiang's wife Jin Bianling said the family had hired Chen Jinxue and Song Yu to represent him, but that their attempts to "prove" their connection to Jiang weren't enough, according to officers at the Xizhan police station.
She said the police also claimed to have no record of her husband's whereabouts.
"The police at the Xizhan police station said they haven't been able to find any information [on their system] relating to Jiang Tianyong," Jin said.
"They said that we should get in touch with the Nanzhan police station in Changsha for proof that Jiang Tianyong didn't board the train."
More than 60 lawyers have issued a statement calling on the authorities to investigate Jiang's "disappearance" after he failed to make the D940 express train from Shandong back to Beijing on Nov. 21.
'Passing the buck'
Jiang had been visiting the family of detained rights lawyer Xie Yang, in Changsha, at the time of his "disappearance."
Chen Jinxue told RFA that there is no record of Jiang's having boarded the train, however.
"I think they are just passing the buck," Chen said. "The Xizhan police station have accepted our missing persons report, and now they're trying to back-track on it."
"They could get the necessary evidence from Changsha themselves."
Xie's wife Chen Guiqiu said on Thursday that her husband had been beaten up by guards in the police-run Changsha No. 2 Detention Center ahead of a recent visit from a different lawyer.
"His defense attorney finally managed to meet with Xie Yang, who was cruelly beaten up by guards inside the detention center before their meeting," she said. "While lawyer Zhang Zhongshi was waiting to see Xie, he heard cries of pain and screams drifting in from the corridor outside."
"It went on for five or six minutes in total," she said.
Zhang confirmed her account in a separate interview.
"He wanted to bring a document into the meeting to give to his lawyer, and the police wouldn't let him," he said. "I have spoken to the detention center director and to the prosecutor's office about the the police beating him up, and demanded an investigation."
Meanwhile, in the southwestern province of Sichuan, rights activists said Huang Qi's elderly mother is now incommunicado following the detention of her son.
"It is now 40 hours since Huang's mother was taken away by Neijiang police to an unknown location," activist Wu Suyun told RFA.
No due process
Huang was detained and his home raided by police officers from the provincial capital Chengdu and the earthquake-hit regions of Neijiang and Mianyang on Monday evening.
Huang, 51, was sentenced to three years in prison in November 2011 after launching an investigation into shoddy school construction blamed for thousands of deaths during a massive 2008 earthquake.
Petitioner Zhou Jun said activists had realized Huang's 83-year-old mother Pu Wenqing was also missing after trying to visit her in hospital.
"We went to the hospital to try to find her this morning, but we weren't able to find her," Zhou said.
She said fellow activists have since been trying to find a lawyer to represent Huang and his mother, and had contacted rights lawyer Ran Tong to that end.
But Ran told RFA on Thursday that his involvement would likely be counterproductive.
"There are two pre-conditions for lawyers' involvement in such cases: one is that the authorities in charge of the case issue a letter to the lawyer, indicating what stage Huang Qi is at in the legal process," Ran said.
"The other is that the lawyer must receive instructions from the relatives, but neither of these documents exists," he said. "I want to help, but in this situation I'm powerless to do so."
He said Huang's treatment resembles that meted out to dozens of rights lawyers since a nationwide crackdown on the legal profession began on July 9, 2015.
"It's very similar to the July 9 incident, where they just throw due process out of the window," Ran said.
Meanwhile, citizen journalist Liu Feiyue is reportedly under criminal detention on suspicion of “subversion of state power” after police in Hubei took him into custody on Nov. 17.
Reported by Qiao Long and Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and Wong Lok-to for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.