Authorities in the eastern Chinese city of Wuxi are holding more than a dozen rights activists who helped petitioners escape from unofficial detention in a local hotel, lawyers and relatives said.
The detentions came after a daring bid by more than 30 rights activists successfully freed five petitioners who were being held in a guesthouse in the Xishan district of the Jiangsu province city on June 23.
Activist Ding Hongfen and six other activists were taken away by unidentified men hired by the head of the Taihu district justice bureau and placed under criminal detention, Wuxi-based rights lawyer Ni Wenhua said on Wednesday, adding that others involved in the escape plot had also been detained.
"They are going crazy, to be detaining so many people in Wuxi," Ni said. "According to my count, they have detained 16 people, and they're detaining more."
"Those who took part [in the rescue bid] have all been detained, and those under criminal detention are likely to be sentenced."
"Things are very dangerous right now; the state security police have also been looking for me, and I don't feel safe right now," Ni said.
The activists had helped spring the petitioners from the Dongjiao Commercial Guesthouse that was being used as a "black jail," an unofficial detention center where authorities detain those who complain to higher levels of government about local officials.
Lawyer hired to represent them
A Wuxi doctor who hired top Beijing rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan to represent the activists was taken in for questioning by the authorities.
Wang Zhenhua, who had also written about the activists' rescue mission and detention on social media, was taken away by a "large group" of plainclothes officers on Tuesday morning and held for a day, his wife said.
"He was called in [for questioning] while he was at work, and held for 24 hours, before being released at 10:00 a.m. today," she said.
"He told me it was probably because of an article he posted online about the [rescue action]," she added.
'Made the whole thing public'
Liu, who confirmed he is representing activist Ding Hongfen, said Wang was likely being targeted for blowing the whistle publicly on the activists' detentions.
"My feeling is that it's because he called [my law firm] and made the whole thing public," Liu said. "At the time, when he was on the phone to me, I felt that the phone line was being monitored."
Liu said the police probably judged the families of those detained unlikely to hire a top-flight rights lawyer without Wang's help.
"[Without him], no one would have heard about the events in Wuxi; that they had detained so many people," he said.
"We think it has a lot to do with the fact that he tried to find them a lawyer."
List of those wanted
Liu said the authorities had a list of people they wished to place under criminal detention.
"When [the activists] went to rescue [the petitioners], the authorities illegally detained them, saying they had committed a crime, and they put obstacles in the way of their visiting lawyers,"
"A total of seven people received notification of criminal detention at the same time that Ding Hongfen received it," he said.
"But there are more than a dozen people we aren't sure about [whether they are in criminal detention]," Liu added. "They haven't been home yet, at any rate."
Campaign against black jails
The detentions come as a Chinese rights campaigners launched an online campaign over the weekend to abolish black jails.
Citing the case of the Wuxi petitioners, the China Weiquanwang website issued a statement condemning the practice, which it said has become widespread throughout the country.
According to Liu, the Wuxi authorities make extensive use of unofficial detention as part of "stability maintenance" programs.
"In my opinion, the problem of black jails in Wuxi is extremely serious, because petitioners get locked up in guesthouses or other venues and not allowed to return home, in the name of the so-called law study groups," he said.
Dissidents, scholars and other people who have suffered through similar experiences have all joined the campaign.
Rights activists say unofficial detention renders detainees vulnerable to abuse and attack, with some dying in custody or suffering severe injuries leading to permanent disability.
In May, Sichuan authorities detained and beat high-profile rights lawyers who tried to visit a black jail in Ziyang city, according to fellow lawyers who spoke with them during the attack.
Days later, London-based rights group Amnesty International hit out at Beijing's ruling Chinese Communist Party for keeping up a "stranglehold" on dissidents and rights activists last year, subjecting thousands to arbitrary detention in labor camps and black jails.
In 2012, Beijing earmarked 701 billion yuan (U.S. $112 billion) in funding for "stability maintenance," an increase of over 30 billion yuan (U.S. $4.9 billion) from the previous year.
Reported by Fang Yuan for RFA's Mandarin Service and by Pan Jiaqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.