A veteran Chinese dissident and his wife have been "forcibly disappeared" by the authorities since last month, according to their relatives.
Wuhan-based dissident Qin Yongmin, who has already served a lengthy jail term for helping to found the banned opposition China Democracy Party (CDP), was taken with his wife Zhao Suli from their home by state security police officers on Sunday, friends and fellow activists said.
"We have launched a petition of lawyers and citizens that has collected around 500 signatures calling on the Wuhan authorities to release Qin Yongmin and his wife," Pan Lu, a close friend of Qin's told RFA.
"He has been refused the normal legal help a lawyer would provide," Pan said.
"If they formally arrest someone, then there should be an arrest warrant issued, but there hasn't been any of this stuff," he said.
Qin, 58, a veteran dissident who also served time in the wake of the 1981 "Democracy Wall" movement, was placed under police surveillance alongside Zhao in January, ahead of China's annual parliamentary sessions in early March, the couple's friends and relatives told RFA.
But while many others detained or forced by state security police to take "vacations" during the National People's Congress (NPC) have since reappeared, nobody has heard from the Qins, Zhao's sister said.
"We haven't managed to contact them in three months," Zhao's sister, who asked not to be named in full, said in a recent interview. "We don't know what has happened to Zhao Suli, whether she's been 'disappeared' or what."
"That's why we came to Wuhan to look for her."
Search blocked by police
She said the three sisters have teamed up with Qin's defense attorney Ma Lianshun to file a missing person's report on the couple at their local police station.
"The first thing we did was report them missing at the Qingshan police station," the sister said. "We don't know where Zhao Suli is, or even if she's still alive."
"We have looked all over for her, but we can't find her."
The sisters had been prevented from visiting Qin Yongmin's apartment in Wuhan to look for clues by police guarding the entrance to his apartment, she said.
They then printed and displayed a banner near the apartment calling on the authorities to explain what had happened to the couple.
"They snatched our banner away, so we started walking around the streets looking for her," Zhao's sister said. "We have the right to search for her ourselves."
Qin was detained by local state security police in January for "writing too many articles recently and giving too many interviews to overseas media organization," according to his friends.
He was initially held for 10 days under administrative detention starting Jan. 19, but was never subsequently released. Instead, the authorities took Zhao away as well.
'A harder line' seen
Pan called on the ruling Chinese Communist Party to release Qin under its own call for the rule of law to be upheld across the country.
"They are ruling the country illegally, and they are illegally persecuting dissident leaders," Pan said.
He said the current crackdown on dissent appeared to be taking a harder line than previous campaigns had done.
"The Chinese Communist Party is using violent suppression to target proponents of peaceful evolution, or anyone who suggests we need to have a conversation about democracy," Pan said.
"This shows that things have gone seriously downhill for the civil rights and pro-democracy movements in China since [President] Xi Jinping came to power," he said.
"The human rights situation has also taken a sharp downturn."
Qin was initially sentenced to eight years in prison for "counterrevolutionary propaganda and subversion" in the wake of China's Democracy Wall movement in 1981.
A contemporary of exiled dissident Wei Jingsheng, Qin served a further two years' "re-education through labor" in 1993 after he penned a controversial document titled "Peace Charter."
Qin then served a 12-year jail term for subversion after he helped found the CDP in 1998.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.