Authorities in the Chinese capital have formally arrested another associate of the Beijing Fengrui law firm and a rights activist on subversion charges, bringing the total facing jail on similar charges to 10, a Hong Kong-based rights group said on Thursday.
Fengrui administrative assistant Liu Sixin was formally arrested on Jan. 8 after being detained during a nationwide crackdown that started with the detention of prominent rights lawyer Wang Yu and several colleagues on the night of July 9 last year.
Liu was formally arrested by police in the northern port city of Tianjin on suspicion of "subversion of state power," the Hong Kong-based Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group (CHRLCG) said in a statement on its website.
He had previously served a four-and-a-half year prison sentence for assaulting his wife's boss, who had allegedly sexually harassed her. He later divorced in order to protect his wife and child from repercussions relating to his case, according to CHRLCG.
Since then, Liu has been closely involved in rights activism in local communities, supporting lawyers targeted by the authorities and working as an administrative assistant at Fengrui, the group said.
Rights activist Hu Shigen was also formally arrested on Jan. 8 on suspicion of "subversion of state power" and is currently being held at the Tianjin No. 1 Detention Center.
Of the Fengrui-linked legal practitioners and employees detained in the crackdown, 11 have now been formally arrested, while three have been released on bail at the end of a six-month "residential surveillance" period.
Fengrui boss Zhou Shifeng, lawyers Wang Yu and Wang Quanzhang, trainee lawyer Li Shuyun and legal assistant Zhao Wei have also been arrested on the same charge as Liu.
Zhou's lawyer Wang Shaoguang said he has yet to confirm his client's status, as the authorities have refused requests for a meeting with Zhou, who is said by police to have "confessed" to the charges against him.
"I haven't been able to confirm any of these reports that Zhou has fired his lawyer or admitted to the charges against him," Wang said on Thursday. "They are all unconfirmed."
"They remain unreliable until such time as my client tells me face to face that he is guilty," he said.
"Right now, I can't even get a meeting with him, because they can refuse permission to see a lawyer in cases involving national security under Chinese law, unless it is approved by the investigating team," Wang added.
"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."
Meanwhile, Fengrui lawyers Xie Yanyi and Xie Yang and Wang Yu's husband Bao Longjun have been formally arrested on the lesser charge of "incitement to subvert state power," while Fengrui legal assistant Gao Yue has been formally arrested on charges of "destroying evidence," a charge which carries a prison term of up to seven years in cases deemed "serious" by the court.
He said it is still possible that the authorities may yet downgrade the charges against Zhou to "incitement to subvert state power," if they have insufficient evidence to back up the more serious charge.
"In the case of [prominent rights lawyer] Pu Zhiqiang, they started out with all of these charges, but in the end, they only tried him on one of them," Wang said.
"Then he received a fairly light and suspended sentence, so I think this case will be similar."
Meanwhile, authorities in Beijing detained Wang Quanzhang's lawyer Wang Qiushi on Jan. 10 under "residential surveillance in a police-designated location," the overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network said.
According to CHRD, Wang Qiushi has worked on a number of high-profile human rights cases, including defending one of the five feminists detained ahead of International Women's Day last year.
The group said the arrests and the latest detention show that the persecution of rights lawyers and activists in China continues to escalate.
"These lawyers and activists have been punished for exercising their rights to free expression, assembly, association, and the right to work in just and favorable conditions, as well as their right to practice their legal profession without political interference," the group said in a statement on its website.
"Officials have disregarded all safeguards of basic human rights in the cases of these detained lawyers," it said, citing enforced disappearance as a "crime against humanity," as defined in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
As of Jan. 14, at least 317 lawyers, legal workers, and rights activists have been detained, held for questioning, or placed under some form of restriction since the July crackdown began, CHRLCG said.
While the majority have been released, albeit under surveillance or with travel bans imposed, 33 remain in detention or "residential surveillance," many at an unknown location.
Reported by Lin Jing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.