Authorities in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou have formally arrested prominent human rights lawyer Tang Jingling and two other lawyers on subversion charges after initially detaining them on lesser charges, sources said.
The formal arrest of Tang followed his detention last month on charges of "causing a disturbance," which carries a potentially lighter jail term.
The authorities are charging him with "incitement to subvert state power, which is highly unlikely, because he followed a policy of peaceful non-cooperation," Tang's wife Wang Yanfang told RFA after tweeting about the arrest notice at the weekend.
"[These] charges have left his family shocked, because they are so serious," she said. "Everyone is stunned: the media and democracy activists here and overseas."
Wang, who said the subversion charge made no legal sense, said Tang's lawyers had already requested a meeting with their client.
"This will put more obstacles in the way of his lawyers, and make it more difficult when it comes to meeting with [Tang]," she said. "They will be able to say that the case touches on state secrets, and use this as an excuse to put off the lawyers trying to visit him."
Wang had earlier posted a copy of the arrest notice to her Sina Weibo microblog account, but the post appeared to have been deleted on Monday.
Searches returned the message: "According to relevant laws, regulations and policies, we are unable to display results for 'Tang Jingling incitement to subvert state power.'"
Tang, 43, a prominent civil rights lawyer and activist who has represented disadvantaged groups including farmers who have lost land to development and political activists, was detained on May 16, alongside two fellow rights lawyers.
His formal arrest makes a trial more likely, given that dozens of activists detained before the 25th anniversary of the June 4, 1989 military crackdown in Tiananmen Square have since been released on bail or allowed to return to, or leave, their homes again.
Tang's lawyer Liu Zhengqing said he was refused permission to visit his client once again on Monday.
"They aren't letting us visit him," Liu said. "They say they haven't had approval from the Guangzhou state security police ... but I asked them and they say they don't know either."
"How are we to speak to him?"
He said the sort of actions Tang had participated in were unrelated to subversion.
"It was all part of a peaceful non-ooperation movement," Liu said. "But they will arrest you if they want to, regardless of whether it's factual or not, or illegal."
"This is political persecution," he added.
Others face charges
The two other rights lawyers, Wang Qingying and Yuan Xinting, are also now facing subversion charges, Wang Yanfang said.
Yuan's lawyer Ge Wenxiu said he had also been refused permission to visit his client on Monday.
"He is being charged with incitement to subvert state power," Ge said. "If they want to change it just like that, then change it they will."
Wang Qingying's wife Zeng Jieshan said she felt he had done the right thing, however. "I feel extremely sad about this, because I no longer have my husband at my side," she said. "Our kids can't see their father."
"But I believe that what he did was totally right, and he never did anything to break the law," she said. "He only acted responsibly for his kids, for society, and for the whole country."
Wang Yanfang agreed. "This is totally a catch-all charge, aimed at frightening people," she said.
Meanwhile, rights activist Su Changlan, who heads a support group for Tang, said the charges were aimed at instilling fear into China's nascent civil rights movement and anyone expressing dissent.
"We all think that they are all of them innocent," Su said. "They have been framed, because the authorities can do whatever they want."
"They have been detaining people like crazy recently, but we were ready for it," she said.
A hard line
Since President Xi Jinping came to power in November 2012, the government has taken a hard line with government critics, in particular a loose grouping of activists known as the New Citizens' Movement, who have used public street protests to call on officials to reveal their assets.
Many have been jailed or are still being held on public order charges like "disturbing public order" or "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," however, and the more serious charge of subversion has been relatively rare.
Fellow rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan told Agence France-Presse that the charge against Tang means that his case has moved from being an "ordinary crime" to being a political one, which can result in jail terms of "not less than five years" if a defendant is judged to have been a "ringleader."
Dozens of people linked in some way to the loosely organized New Citizens' Movement have been detained over the past year, according to Amnesty International, while at least 10 activists have been handed formal jail terms of up to six-and-a-half years to date, almost all of them on public order charges.
Top Beijing rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who was also detained along with dozens of others after attending a seminar marking the Tiananmen anniversary, has been arrested for "creating disturbances and illegally obtaining personal information".
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Grace Kei Lai-see for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.