Four lawyers who complained repeatedly that their clients had been tortured to obtain confessions in a high-profile anti-gang case in the central Chinese province of Hunan were beaten up by unidentified men outside the gates of a city court building on Tuesday.
Lawyers Zhang Lei, Wang Fu, Liu Jinbin, and legal assistant Chen Jianxiong were set upon as they arrived to defend their clients at the Hengyang Intermediate People's Court, Zhang told RFA.
"Four lawyers were subjected to a violent attack at the gates of the Hengyang Intermediate People's Court," he said.
"I was injured the worst out of everybody. My elbows and knees are scraped and bloody, and I have some fairly serious soft tissue injuries in my abdomen."
Zhang said the attackers had already surrounded Liu when he arrived at the municipal court building on Tuesday morning.
"When I got to the front gates of the court, I saw some people had surrounded Liu Jinbin and were attacking him, so I went and took some photos, so then they surrounded and attacked me as well," Zhang said.
"I was surrounded and beaten up by a lot of people, who ripped my clothes and dragged me around," he said.
"The whole thing lasted around five minutes."
Attackers included women
Zhang said that all four men had sustained minor injuries and severely ripped clothing as a result of the attack by the unidentified assailants as they arrived to defend their clients.
"I have a lot of injuries as a result," Zhang said. "Wang Fu and his assistant Chen Jianxiong were also beaten up before me."
"My right shoulder, elbow, and wrist are all scraped and cut and my clothes have been ripped to shreds," Zhang said.
"Wang Fu has holes ripped in his coat, suit, shirt, and underwear, while Liu Jinbin lost his glasses and cell phone in the attack, and he is bleeding from a cut lip," he added.
Wang estimated that around 16 or 17 men and women had attacked the four lawyers.
"I arrived at the gates of the court and someone asked me if I was Wang Fu, the lawyer, and I said I was," Wang said.
"Then they started punching me, and then they beat up my assistant, who was taking photos."
"They even tried to rip my trousers off. I have injuries all over my body, especially cuts and scratches on my upper body," he said, adding that the majority of the attackers were women.
Attack linked to complaint
The lawyers had submitted official letters of complaint to Hunan provincial authorities on Monday complaining that their clients had been subjected to torture while in police detention, and calling for those responsible to be brought to justice.
Zhang said he believed that the attack was organized, and linked to their case.
"According to eyewitnesses at the scene, their actions were coordinated, because there was another unidentified man on the scene throughout, shooting video of the attacks the whole time," Zhang said.
"That same man had attended all of the court hearings, and the attackers paid no attention when he shot video of them, and yet when I tried to film them beating up Liu Jinbin, they immediately started beating me up as well," Zhang said.
The beatings came after the entire defense team of nine lawyers signed an open letter calling on the Hunan provincial government to pursue those responsible for their clients' torture at the hands of police, Zhang added.
"It's hard to imagine that this attack had nothing to do with that fact," he said.
More than 100 lawyers have since signed an open letter calling on the authorities to investigate the attack.
Fellow lawyer Zhou Shifeng, who was among those who signed, said he was shocked and disgusted by the attack.
"If lawyers can be beaten up at the gates of a court building on their way to court, then there has to be someone powerful behind the scenes," Zhou said.
"How will we ever bring such a person to justice? We can't. Only the police can do that," he said.
"This must have had the backing of the local government," Zhou said.
"In a democratic society with the rule of law, lawyers have a high status in society, whereas in a society run by ignorant barbarians, it is very low," he said.
"Everything depends not on the rule of law, but on violence."
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Lok-to by the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.