Chinese authorities have launched a nationwide crackdown on supporters of jailed rights lawyer Xie Yang after they gathered outside a court in the central province of Hunan in the hope of attending his trial last month.
Xie, who has made a long and detailed report of torture in detention, was due to stand trial at the Changsha Intermediate People’s Court on April 25, facing charges of "incitement to subvert state power" and "disrupting court order."
But the proceedings were postponed after dozens of supporters, foreign journalists and diplomats flocked to the court in the hope of witnessing the trial from the public gallery.
Now, China's state security police is targeting some of those supporters in their hometowns.
"It's now payback time, the aim of which is to sow more fear [among rights activists]," Xu Qin of the China Rights Observer group told RFA on Thursday.
"They want this group of people to feel scared, so that they don't ever dare to go anywhere to show support ever again," she said.
Ou Biaofeng, a rights activist from Hunan's Zhuzhou city, said he was summoned by his local police station and questioned for an hour over his trip to Changsha.
"Maybe the whole thing was a decoy, so that they would get an idea of who would show up, and they could get their details," Ou said. "There really wasn't much police presence on the day, nor was there any kind of obstruction or tight security like roadblocks."
"It's likely that the authorities have paid visits to people who came from all over the country [that day], including me," he said. "In Zhuzhou alone, five people were summoned for questioning."
In the southwestern region of Guangxi, activist and Xie supporter Tan Aijun said he had also been called up several times by state security police from his hometown, asking him when he would be coming home.
"They didn't mention the Xie Yang case," Tan said. "They just asked me where I was, what I was doing, and when I was coming home to Yulin."
"I'm guessing that this is some kind of retaliation for attending the Xie Yang trial."
Sacked for activism
Last week, a resident of southern China's Guangdong province said he has been fired from his job after he traveled to Changsha on April 25.
Bu Yongzhu said he was sacked without notice from the company where he has worked for seven years, although his company 'wouldn't admit' it was linked to the Xie Yang case.
He told RFA on Thursday that he had been summoned by state security police for questioning on Wednesday and warned off further rights activism.
"They told me that I shouldn't attend any more events linked to the Xie Yang case, and to stop engaging in activism," Bu said, but added that he wouldn't follow orders.
"The state security police are so behind the times," he said. "I will definitely be taking part in rights activism in future, as long as I have time."
Xie was among dozens of rights lawyers, activists and law firm staff detained during a nationwide crackdown on the legal profession beginning in July 2015.
An international group of lawyers and judges on Tuesday called on Beijing to release Xie immediately, saying that he was arrested and charged for "performing legitimate professional functions" as a human rights lawyer.
The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) said Xie has been unable to communicate with his lawyers since he gave them his account of his torture at the hands of police, and is now represented by a government-appointed lawyer.
In the absence of evidence that he has committed a recognizable crime compatible with international human rights law, Xie should be immediately released, it said.
The group called on the government to bring to justice "any persons found to be responsible for the torture of Xie Yang."
Reported by Ding Wenqi for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Lok-to for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.