China has confirmed the detention of a number of its top human rights lawyers, saying they are being investigated for ‘illegally organizing paid protests,’ following a raid on the high-profile public interest law firm Fengrui last week.
Beijing’s ministry of public security said lawyers were the ‘core organizers’ of a group that is being detained for “illegally organizing paid protests, hyping public sentiment and fabricating rumors on the Internet to sway court decisions,” the state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
Fengrui lawyers Wang Yu, Huang Liqun, Liu Sixin, Wang Quanzhang and Fengrui chief partner Zhou Shifeng “have been detained,” it quoted police as saying, although many other lawyers including Zhai Yanmin and Li Heping, who isn’t part of Fengrui, were also held and questioned.
“Zhai , Wu, Huang Liqun and Liu Xing have reflected on their alleged crimes and realized their harmful impact,” Xinhua said.
The detention of the head of Fengrui, Zhou Shifeng, came shortly after he secured the release of Die Zeit news assistant Zhang Miao after nine months in detention. Zhou was seen being taken away by three unidentified men early on Friday, their colleagues said.
“It was around noon [on Friday], and I was at Fengrui at the time, and then the police came in, and told us to give them our cell phones for checking,” Fengrui attorney Zhang Weiyu told RFA.
“They took until about 5.30 p.m. to check them, and then they searched the whole of the Fengrui offices from top to bottom,” he said. “They didn’t detain us, some of us were allowed to go, and left.”
Lawyers held incommunicado
Wang, who has defended high profile activists, including jailed Uyghur dissident Ilham Tohti, Cao Shunli and Wu Gan, has been incommunicado since the early hours of Thursday morning, according to the Weiquanwang rights website, after sending a tweet saying that someone was trying to force open the door of her apartment.
Beijing rights lawyer Li Fangping said “a large number” of people linked to Fengrui were incommunicado following the raid.
“Some of them have actually been detained, while others we just can’t reach,” Li said. “
According to Fengrui partner and rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan, fellow Fengrui attorney Li Zhuyun, was taken away around the same time as the raid on Fengrui’s offices, while her home was searched by around a dozen plainclothes police, from her home and had her flat searched by a dozen plain-clothes police.
“There is a work placement attorney in our firm called Li Zhuyun, and she contacted me [on Friday] morning saying there were people banging on the door, and then, much later, I wasn’t able to contact her,” he said.
“Her sister … told me that around a dozen plainclothes police went into her home, showing their official ID, and saying they were from the Tianjin police department … and that they were collaborating with the Beijing police on a case,” Liu said. “Then they searched the place, and confiscated computer[s] and hard drive[s], saying it was for a criminal investigation.”
Similar treatment had also been meted out to Fengui lawyers Huang Liqun and Wang Quanzhang, Liu said.
Liu said he had complained to to professional lawyers’ body about the detentions.
“The younger attorneys in the firm are really frightened … nobody is answering the phone at the firm right now,” he said.
Authorities 'manufacture error'
Beijing rights attorney Liang Xiaojun said the crackdown has sent shockwaves through China’s human rights community, and accused the ruling Chinese Communist Party of trying to “manufacture terror.”
According to Xinhua, the lawyers are accused of organizing “more than 40 controversial incidents” since July 2012, which had “severely disrupted public order.”
It cited the lawyers’ involvement in the “lawful police shooting” of Xu Chunhe at Heilongjiang’s Qingan railway station in May as an example of “hyping up” an incident.
Lawyers spread rumors that "Li opened fire at Xu under the order of an official because Xu was a petitioner," it said, and “raised placards” at Qing'an Railway Station, it said.
Wang Yu, now detained, is one of the defense team for online freedom of speech activist Wu Gan, known as “The Butcher,” who is being held under criminal detention on charges of "libel," "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," and the more serious "incitement to subvert state power."
Xinhua said Wu was known for “boldly stirring controversial incidents.”
It cited a “confession” from Zhai as saying that he had helped to “hype up” mass popular protests.
“There are others responsible for filming scenes of "mass incidents" and posting them on some overseas websites to manipulate public opinion,” Xinhua said.
“Zhai, Wu, Huang Liqun and Liu Xing have reflected on their alleged crimes and realized their harmful impact,” it cited a police statement as saying.
China's embattled legal profession ended 2014 with at least seven prominent rights attorneys behind bars, in one of its worst years since its resurgence in the 1980s, rights groups said.
Those jailed or held awaiting trial include Pu Zhiqiang, Ding Jiaxi, Tang Jingling, Xia Lin and Xu Zhiyong.
In May, the authorities indicted prominent rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang for "incitement to racial hatred" after holding him in detention for more than a year, paving the way for a trial, his lawyer said.
Pu, 50, is being charged with "incitement to racial hatred," and "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," a year after his detention following an event marking the anniversary of the military crackdown on the 1989 student-led pro-democracy movement.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA’s Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.