International rights groups have called on China to release all human rights lawyers who remain behind bars, three years after the ruling Chinese Communist Party launched a nationwide crackdown on rights lawyers and activists.
More than 300 lawyers, law firm employees and activists were detained and questioned in the crackdown. While many were released from immediate detention, some lost their license to practice, while others found themselves and loved ones subjected to round-the-clock police surveillance and travel bans.
"President Xi Jinping’s claims that China is ruled by law will ring hollow so long as lawyers are detained at the whim of authorities," Sophie Richardson, China director at the New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW), said in a statement.
“Each day lawyers are unjustly jailed darkens the stain on Beijing’s already poor rights record.”
Human rights lawyers, who frequently represent vulnerable clients or cases deemed politically sensitive by the authorities, continue to be targeted under the administration of President Xi Jinping, HRW said.
It cited the case of Beijing lawyer Wang Quanzhang who has been held incommunicado for the past three years on subversion charges.
"He has not been heard from since his apprehension three years ago. There are reports that he has been tortured in custody," HRW said.
It said the detention of lawyers continues, citing the sentencing of rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong to two years' imprisonment on subversion charges last November. His family say Jiang has been force-fed unidentified medication and now suffers from memory loss.
And a court in the northern city of Tianjin handed down an eight-year jail term to human rights activist Wu Gan, who had been a vocal campaigner against miscarriages of justice, for subversion.
Meanwhile, even lawyers who have "cooperated" with the authorities by providing televised "confessions" in return for release on bail have been unable to return to their professional lives.
Since becoming the first rights lawyers to be detained in a raid on the Beijing Fengrui law firm on the night of July 9, 2015, Wang Yu and her husband Bao Longjun have been unable to return to work.
Many other colleagues, including those who represented detained lawyers, have since lost their license to practice, according to the Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network, which collates reports from rights groups inside China.
"Many Chinese lawyers who provide legal defense to persecuted human rights defenders, dissidents, and ethnic and religious minorities continue to be arbitrarily detained and deprived of licenses to practice law," CHRD said in a statement on Monday.
The group called on the U.S. to sanction Zhao Fei, a former director of the Tianjin police department, under the Global Magnitsky Act targeting overseas rights abusers.
"From July 2014 to July 2017, Zhao presided over the enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, and torture of lawyers and activists, who were mostly detained in Tianjin or transferred there and then disappeared," CHRD said.
It said 19 cases involving serious human rights abuses, including credible reports of torture, denial of the right to a lawyer and incommunicado detention in unknown locations, can be directly linked to Zhao's time at the department.
"The crackdown has been a blatant affront to rule-of-law principles, which China claims to respect, and a politicized attack on civil society," the group said.
"Those affected had been targeted as retaliation for their professional conduct as lawyers or as activists supporting rule of law development and independence of the criminal justice system," it said.
'Disappeared for three years'
Rights lawyer Lin Qilei said he and his colleagues had penned an open letter to the government to mark the anniversary.
"Naturally we wish to express our anger and condemnation of the actions of the authorities in this regard," said Lin, who is defense attorney to "disappeared" lawyer Wang Quanzhang.
"I am Wang Quanzhang's lawyer, and after all this time, not a single judicial department or police station is willing to address this issue," he said. "I haven't been able to visit my client once in the past three years, which is utterly ridiculous and a serious breach of the law."
Wang's wife Li Wenzu posted an undelivered letter to her husband on social media on Monday.
"Lately, I keep remembering that morning three years ago when things seemed so normal, when you waved goodbye and left," Li wrote. "Now you have been disappeared for three years."
"If I had known that that hurried goodbye would have had to last me so long, I would have broken through my reserve and held you tight," the letter says.
U.S.-based legal scholar Teng Biao said overseas dissidents will mark Monday as the "Chinese Rights Lawyers' Day, with plans to update the community on the lawyers' cases, and award a prize to lawyers for their contribution to human rights in China.
"We are hoping to use this event to inform people about the situation of China's human rights lawyers online," Teng said. "We have had some reports from various international media and rights groups, but we want the U.S. government to step up pressure on the Chinese government over the July 2015 crackdown."
Reported by Wang Yun and Lau Siu-fung for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Wang Yun and Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.