Police in the northern Chinese city of Tianjin have taken the 16-year-old son of detained rights attorney Wang Yu from his home amid an ongoing crackdown on the country's embattled legal profession, lawyers told RFA on Friday.
Wang's detention on July 9 came amid a raid on her law firm, Fengrui, and kicked off a nationwide police operation that has targeted more than 200 public interest and human rights attorneys.
At least 222 lawyers, law firm employees and rights activists had been detained, summoned for questioning, or were incommunicado or held under house arrest by Friday, the Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group (CHRLCG) said in a statement on its website.
Wang's son Bao Mengmeng was taken away by police shortly after apparently texting lawyers who were en route to offer him legal assistance that they shouldn't come, Beijing lawyer Chen Jianggang told RFA.
"They took Bao Mengmeng away as soon as they knew the lawyers were on their way," Chen said, adding that he had received a text message from the teenager's phone.
"We received a text message of just a few words saying thank you, but please don't come here," he said. "I think the phone was shut down as soon as he sent it."
Chen said it was unclear whether Bao himself had sent the message.
"We have no way of knowing whether the phone was even in his hands," he said.
Chen said he too is expecting a visiting from China's state security police "at any time."
"I'm not sure I will be able to remain in contact, even if I wanted to," he said. "I don't know when I'll be detained too."
Lawyer Feng Yanqiang, who had been on his way to assist Bao, said the authorities have refused to answer any questions regarding the whereabouts of Wang and the others.
"What is going on with Wang Yu, and which department has detained her, and on suspicion of which crimes," Feng said.
"We don't even know where she is being held, and there's no way for us to find out right now," he said.
"We went to the Tianjin police department and district detention centers, to district police stations and to the courts, to inquire, but we haven't heard any news," Feng added.
'Grim' outlook for rule of law
Feng said he has been asked to resign from his own law firm because he is trying to help Wang, who has been accused by state media of taking part in a "criminal operation" spearheaded by Fengrui and allegedly aimed at undermining social stability.
State media reports have accused the lawyers of "colluding with petitioners to disturb social order and to reach their goals with ulterior motives."
Many lawyers have told RFA they have been summoned for questioning by police and warned not to publicize details of 'sensitive' rights cases online, nor to speak to foreign media organizations.
While many were later released, dozens of lawyers remain in detention, including Wang, her boss Zhou Shifeng, and colleague Huang Liqun from Beijing's Fengrui public interest law firm, which defended jailed Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti.
Meanwhile, China's powerful propaganda department moved this week to curb coverage of the detentions in the country's tightly controlled media.
"All websites must, without exception, use as the standard official and authoritative media reports with regards to the detention of trouble-making lawyers by the relevant departments," according to a directive dated July 14 and leaked online.
"Personnel must take care to find and delete harmful information; do not repost news from non-standard sources," said the directive, which was translated and published by the U.S.-based China Digital Times website.
Rights groups and overseas agencies have continued to call on Beijing to disclose the whereabouts of nine detained lawyers, saying they are at "grave risk" of torture or other mistreatment, and two non-lawyers who went missing during the operation.
Among those "disappeared," and believed detained, are Beijing lawyers Li Heping, Xie Yanyi, Li Shuyun and Liu Yingxin, as well as seven other activists and paralegals.
U.N. human rights investigators demanded an end to crackdown, saying it may have broken the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, the U.N. Basic Principles of the Role of Lawyers and China's own criminal procedures.
"Lawyers should never have to suffer prosecution or any other kind of sanctions or intimidation for discharging their professional duties," they said in a statement issued by the U.N. human rights office.
In Hong Kong, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) said it was "gravely concerned" at the crackdown.
"Freedom of speech and of the press can only be guaranteed when there is the clear and unfettered rule of law," the FCC said in a statement on its website on Friday.
"By attacking lawyers who are dedicated to defending civil liberties, the Chinese authorities are clearly undermining the rule of law and sending a very chilling message to both journalists and lawyers working in China," it said.
The overseas-based Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders said that the future of rule of law in China now looks "grim."
"Our organizations call on the Chinese authorities to immediately disclose the whereabouts of the detainees, ensure their right to access to a lawyer and respect their rights including those stipulated in the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers," the group said in a statement on its website.
According to Australian China expert Geremie Barmé, two influential articles in state-run media in 2012 specifically mentioned rights lawyers as a potential threat to the incoming administration of President Xi Jinping.
One, penned by Yuan Peng in Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily in September 2012, identified five categories of people that could pose a threat to the regime because they were being infiltrated and manipulated by the United States.
The categories comprise rights lawyers, underground religious believers, dissidents, Internet opinion leaders and vulnerable groups who petition against official wrongdoing, Barmé wrote on The China Story website in 2012.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.