China's embattled legal profession is no stranger to official harassment, detention and beatings for speaking out on human rights issues or defending politically sensitive clients, but recently the ruling Chinese Communist Party has also stepped up pressure on lawyers who seek to defend one another.
A number of prominent lawyers are currently being held under criminal detention on public order charges related to the 25th anniversary of the June 4, 1989 military crackdown on the student-led democracy movement on Tiananmen Square.
And their lawyers have reported growing harassment from the government, once they agree to represent them.
Earlier this month, more than 40 top Chinese rights lawyers signed a pledge to come to the aid of other lawyers targeted by the authorities amid a widening clampdown on government critics.
But those who do are attracting unwanted attention from police.
Guangzhou-based Ge Wenxiu, who represents fellow lawyer Yuan Xinting, said he was detained at a border crossing as he tried to travel to neighboring Hong Kong last week.
"They took me into a small room and sat me down and ... said they were checking my ID, and they did so for about 40 minutes," Ge said. "Then they said my son could cross the border but that I couldn't."
"I asked them on what basis they were confiscating my [travel documents] and they said they had no comment," said Ge, who represents prominent rights lawyer Tang Jingling, who is currently under criminal detention on charges of "causing a disturbance."
Rights lawyer Liang Xiaojun said detention center guards had a "terrible attitude" to visiting lawyers, and often deliberately dragged their feet on requests for meetings with their clients.
"This is an infringement on the rights of the profession, this horrible way they have of dragging everything out over a long period of time," Liang told RFA at a legal conference last week.
"They say 'come back in the afternoon,' but when you do, they still refuse to let you visit," he said. "Then they say 'come back tomorrow'."
"They find every possible way to mess you around."
He said lawyers traveling outside their hometowns to represent clients are particularly vulnerable to mistreatment by the authorities.
Last month, Beijing-based Pu Zhiqiang was detained following a May 3 discussion forum on the Tiananmen anniversary. Within days, his own lawyer Qu Zhenhong was also detained by Beijing police on suspicion of "illegally gathering citizens' information."
Later, he hired a new lawyer, Zhang Sizhi, whose requests for a meeting were repeatedly turned down. Now, Zhang has handed the case to colleague Si Weijiang.
Asked if he had managed to meet with Pu, Si said. "No. Things are still in a state of flux at the moment, and there are other factors which it's not convenient for me to tell you about."
"I am willing to take this case, but there are still a number of variables, so we'll have to see," Si said.
Meeting with clients
The refusal to allow client meetings is an effective way to halt effective legal representation in its tracks, according to Beijing-based public interest lawyer Wang Yu, who has defended a number of prominent activists in recent months.
"The right to meet with their clients is one of the most important rights a lawyer has," Wang said. "If there is no meeting, the lawyer has no way to mount a defense."
"Without that, they can only mount a limited defense, and most of the case rests on evidence presented by the police."
She cited the case of Zhengzhou-based lawyer Chang Boyang, who is being held under criminal detention for "gathering a crowd to disrupt public order" after he defended activists who tried to hold a public memorial for the 25th anniversary of the 1989 bloodshed.
"His lawyers have tried to see him but has been refused permission on several occasions," Wang said. "In more and more cases, lawyers are being refused permission to meet with their clients."
"They feel that this is a violation of their legal rights."
On May 29, more than 20 lawyers formed a defense team to defend Chang and other activists detained at the same time, but have been repeated refused permission to visit him in the Zhengzhou No. 3 detention center.
The authorities said the case touched on matters of national security, a claim rejected by the lawyers.
"The claim of damaging national security is used by the authorities as a trump card to stop lawyers meeting with their clients," rights lawyer Li Fangping told RFA.
"But the charges of gathering a crowd to disrupt public order are about public order, and have nothing to do with so-called national security," Li said.
"We haven't seen this before, because it came in after revisions to the criminal law, and it has led to the biggest abuse of national security law in the form of detentions of citizens, lawyers and journalists," he said.
"An evil precedent has now been set."
Last month, Henan-based rights lawyer Jia Lingmin, who has represented victims of forced evictions, refused food for a week while under criminal detention in protest at the authorities' refusal to allow her to see her lawyer Lin Qilei.
In March, four rights lawyers were held under administrative detention and one of them reported being severely beaten after they tried to visit a client held in an unofficial "black jail" in the eastern province of Shandong.
Reported by Xin Lin and Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service and by Grace Kei Lai-see for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.