Authorities in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong have detained a lawyer who had spent the past few months gathering evidence of connections between local officials and organized crime, activists said on Tuesday.
Shu Xiangxin, from the provincial capital of Jinan, was taken away by six or seven police officers in the middle of Monday night and later held under criminal detention on suspicion of blackmail and extortion, his wife and a fellow lawyer said.
"Last night, when we had just gone to sleep, officers from the Jinan public security bureau criminal department came suddenly and took him away," Shu's wife Liu Xiuqin told RFA's Mandarin service. "At the time, they said he was being summoned [for questioning], but then they took his computer away."
"They came back and questioned me in our home for two to three hours shortly after they took him away," Liu said.
Fellow lawyer Qiu Xuyu said he was currently trying to get recognition as Shu's defense lawyer, and that Liu had already received a notification of criminal detention for "extortion and blackmail."
"We have now confirmed that [Shu] is under criminal detention for extortion and blackmail, but we don't know any of the details yet," Qiu said.
"We won't be able to see any of the case materials until the case is formally lodged [with the prosecution]."
"I haven't been confirmed [as his lawyer yet], and we are still talking to them about this," Qiu said. "This will probably happen during the next few days."
Liu said Shu had been detained in connection with his work on behalf of villagers who were trying to fight the acquisition of their land by local officials.
"They had taken over their land illegally, with nothing to show on paper, and my husband wrote the truth about it online," she said.
Shu wrote online last year that an official tried to bribe him to drop a lawsuit brought against the government by farmers in Shandong's Guan county, and, more recently, that he had been beaten and harassed by local mobsters, according to the official Global Times newspaper.
"They sent in some criminal gangs to suppress [the movement] and beat up the lawyers, and then they ... took away [Shu's] license to practice as a lawyer," Liu said.
"They haven't yet given it back to him."
China frequently withholds the licenses of lawyers who represent "sensitive" and disadvantaged groups, often evictees who have had their land requisitioned by cash-strapped local governments.
Calls for release
Shu's detention prompted calls from fellow lawyers for his release.
Rights lawyers Zhao Dongwei, Hao Jinsong, Zheng Jianwei, Liu Weiguo, Ge Wenxiu, Cui Xiaoping and Xie Yang, among others, sent out tweets on China's popular microblogging services calling on netizens to pass on news of his arrest.
"This business has been dragging on for nearly two years now," Liu Weiguo said on Tuesday. "Neither [Shu] nor his law firm can go about their normal business."
"We didn't think they would suddenly do this."
He said most Chinese lawyers, who have to show a valid business license before gaining access to court documents or clients in custody, had faced the threat of losing their business license at some point in their career.
"The judicial authorities are able to exert all kinds of pressure on us via the annual business license review and registration processes," he said.
"But it's not often that we see a lawyer run the risk of a criminal detention, as Shu Xiangxin has," Liu added.
China has launched a nationwide security clampdown ahead of a once-in-a-decade leadership transition at the 18th Congress of the ruling Communist Party on Nov. 8, confining many rights activists to their homes and sending others to jail or labor camp.
Last year, Beijing instituted a clampdown on its embattled legal profession, with many civil rights law firms struggling to renew their licenses.
Rights groups say there is little purpose to the annual lawyer licensing scheme, besides the exertion of state control over the legal profession. New rules introduced in the past two years ban lawyers from defending certain clients, and leave them vulnerable to being charged themselves with subversion if they defend sensitive cases.
According to a 2011 report from Amnesty International, the Chinese government unleashed an uncompromising series of measures intended to rein in the legal profession and suppress lawyers pursuing human rights cases in the wake of the Arab Spring.
Out of more than 204,000 lawyers in China, only a few hundred risk taking on cases that deal with human rights, according to Amnesty International.
The clients most likely to get a lawyer in trouble are Falun Gong practitioners, Tibetan or Uyghur dissidents or protesters, victims of forced evictions, or those who challenge the government's response to natural disasters or food safety issues, the group said.
Reported by Xin Yu for RFA's Mandarin service, and by Grace Kei Lai-see for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.