Chinese authorities have charged several prominent activists with subversion following calls for Middle East-style protests in China, in what rights groups say is a severe crackdown on dissent.
Leading writer Ran Yunfei and Liang Haiyi were among those charged with subversion, while veteran dissidents Ding Mao and Chen Wei—both imprisoned after the 1989 Tiananmen democracy protests—were charged with inciting subversion, according to the Hong Kong-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD).
A fifth activist, Hua Chunhui, was arrested on charges of "leaking state secrets"—a vague charge often used in China to silent dissent, the group said in a statement on its website.
"Signs are emerging to indicate that the current crackdown may be one of the most severe actions taken by the government against Chinese activists in recent years," the statement said.
Ran Yunfei's lawyer Ran Tong said he would try to visit the writer in detention after receiving a notice that he had been charged on Thursday. "The letter is dated Feb. 21," he said.
Under Chinese criminal law, the charges can result in a jail term of more than 10 years or even life imprisonment "in serious cases."
"His family are very unhappy, and they have appointed me to represent him," Ran Tong said. "Tomorrow I will go to apply, but in these sorts of cases the police will often refuse permission for him to see a lawyer, because it involves state secrets."
Right to representation
Ran Tong, who is also a close friend of the activist, said he would seek to defend Ran Yunfei's legal right to representation.
"[He] has fulfilled his duty as a writer all along, and, as he said himself, he had no weapons in his hands," Ran Tong said.
"His only weapon was his writing."
Ran Yunfei was detained in the wake of online calls for a "Jasmine Revolution" in China to protest for political change.
Online campaigners this week urged people in 13 Chinese cities to rally every Sunday to press for government transparency and free expression, following last week's calls for protests echoing those sweeping the Arab world.
In China, charges of subversion, incitement of subversion, and leaking state secrets almost always result in conviction, rights groups say.
The New York-based Human Rights in China has described the clampdown as having "a severity rarely seen in the past few years."
Calls for "Jasmine Revolution" protests last Sunday sparked a heavy police turnout at designated protest sites in Beijing, Shanghai, and other cities, although few protesters appeared to have attended.
The Jasmine Revolution is the name of the Tunisian freedom movement which sparked protests in Egypt and other Arab states earlier this month.
'A management case'
Online activist "Secretary Zhang," who runs the controversial 1984bbs discussion board, said he was detained last week by police, who then settled on curbing his personal freedom instead of making his detention formal.
"I had been sending around a few photos taken by the Western media," Zhang said. "Initially they wanted to take criminal proceedings against me, then they changed it to a management case."
"Now, whenever I leave the house, I have to call the police and get their permission," he said.
According to the Chinese Human Rights Defenders group, more than 100 activists have been subjected to interrogation, house arrest, and other restrictions or have "disappeared" since calls for "Jasmine rallies" in China first surfaced last week.
The Hong Kong-based group's director Renee Xia said in a statement that the crackdown on activists was "a bad situation that is only getting worse."
"In the matter of a few days, we have seen more cases of prominent lawyers subjected to prolonged disappearances, more criminal charges that may carry lengthy prison sentences for activists, more home raids, and a heavier reliance on extra-legal measures," she told Agence France-Presse.
Reported by Ding Xiao for RFA's Mandarin service and by Grace Kei Lai-see for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.