Several prominent Chinese human rights lawyers have been subjected to "intimidating harassment" during a nationwide crackdown that could have a "chilling" effect on the country's embattled legal profession, a group of Hong Kong attorneys has warned.
"We are a group of lawyers in Hong Kong who are deeply concerned with the massive nation-wide arrest, detention and disappearance of human rights lawyers in Mainland China," the group said in a petition published on Change.org at the weekend.
"We denounce intimidating harassment against fellow lawyers," the petition said. "And we call upon the ... Chinese Government ... to respect the constitutional rights of all the detained lawyers and their clients."
Launched by 13 former heads of Hong Kong's prestigious Bar Association and representatives of the city's legal profession in its legislature, the petition called on Beijing to "stop any unlawful or arbitrary conduct against the lawyers' offices or the lawyers and others related to them."
"Lawyers, wherever they practise, are duty bound to defend the interests of their clients without fear and according to the law," the group said.
"It is essential that lawyers should be able to take on causes of clients that are unwelcome to the powers that be," the petition, which had garnered nearly 2,000 signatures by Monday afternoon Hong Kong time, said.
Petition signatory and pan-democratic lawmaker Audrey Eu said she had doubts about the allegations of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble" made by the Chinese police against the detained lawyers, in spite of "confessions" reported in the official media.
"Common sense dictates that it is highly unlikely that more than 200 lawyers are all guilty of a crime," Eu, a former chairman of the Bar Association, told reporters.
"We are concerned that such a massive crackdown is going to terrorize lawyers and create a chilling effect on the profession," she said.
She said detained lawyers should enjoy the same rights as any other detainee, including the right to meet with their legal representative and to receive visits from family members.
"But a lot of lawyers have now been warned off, and they say that they won't defend the detained lawyers, which makes a very unjust situation for those lawyers who have been detained," Eu added.
Nine lawyers and several other staff members of Beijing's Fengrui law firm have been charged with disrupting public order and violating trial proceedings, according to ruling Chinese Communist Party newspaper the People's Daily.
Zhou Shifeng, the firm's director, has pleaded guilty, the paper said in an opinion article on Monday, adding that the lawyers "disguised themselves as part of a disadvantaged group to blackmail the authorities for their own benefit."
Meanwhile, top Guangzhou rights lawyer Sui Muqing and Hunan-based Xie Yang have been charged with the more serious offense of "incitement to subvert state power," which carries a maximum jail term of 15 years in cases deemed "serious" by the judge.
Hangzhou-based rights lawyer Wang Cheng said the crackdown is continuing.
"These actions on the part of the authorities are stupid and ridiculous, and will do massive harm to the country," Wang said.
"There is no explanation for it; nobody will benefit," he said.
Confessing to spare colleagues
Rights lawyer Wen Donghai said Zhou's "confession" is likely aimed at lightening the burden for his detained colleagues.
"Actually, he is a corporate lawyer," Wen said. "It's just that there were a quite a lot of rights lawyers in his law firm."
"I think he is a very upright man, and he is probably hoping that he can lighten the sentence for his colleagues by pleading guilty," Wen said.
The Hong Kong petition also singled out top Fengrui lawyer Wang Yu, her husband Bao Longjun and the couple's teenage son Bao Mengmeng, who is currently being held under house arrest at a relative's home in Tianjin.
"He can't go home [to Beijing] easily because they won't give him his front door key," rights lawyer Chen Jiangang told RFA. "They also won't return his passport and are saying he won't be allowed to go and study overseas, that he can forget about that now."
"They won't let him leave, and they won't tell him where his mother and father are being held," Chen said. "They won't let the family hire a lawyer ... they're not even allowed to contact lawyers."
"The state security police have put a guard on the family home, and the kid is terrified right now," he added.
In Washington last week, a group of U.S. lawmakers wrote a letter to Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai condemning the crackdown on lawyers as well as the forced repatriation of more that 100 Uyghurs who had been seeking asylum in Thailand.
"Unfortunately, this crackdown appears to be nothing more than a continuation of China’s efforts to eliminate through incarceration those willing to challenge government positions in public fora," said the letter, sent on July 16.
"Despite recent statements from the highest levels of Chinese leadership, these actions seem to demonstrate that that the government of the People’s Republic of China does not respect the rule of law," added the letter, which urged China to rethink its approach to human rights.
At least 236 targeted
At least 236 lawyers, paralegals and rights activists had been targeted in the ongoing crackdown, as of 3.00 p.m. local time on Monday, the Hong Kong-based Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group (CHRLCG) said in a statement on its website.
Fourteen of them are still in police custody, whether in a detention center, under some form of house arrest, or at a secret location, the group said.
Six remain "disappeared" or incommunicado, including Fengrui lawyer Li Shuyun, the firm's accountant Wang Fang, and Beijing-based rights activist Hu Shigen, the CHRLCG said.
A further 216 people were temporarily detained or summoned for questioning by police and later released, it said.
The authorities are also harassing former clients who speak up on behalf of the detained lawyers, according to reports received by RFA.
Fan Yonghai, son of retired People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldier Fan Mugen, who was jailed for eight years in May for attacking members of a demolition gang who came to raze his home, said he had received a visit from the Suzhou state security police after calling on the authorities to release information about Wang Yu, who defended his father.
"I didn't even do anything, and they sent a car here to watch me," Fan said. "I just wanted to say a few words for justice, to make it clear how we feel about this."
"Everything Wang Yu did for us as a lawyer was within the law, and she only sued the court because the case took so long because of incompetence by the court," he said.
"What else was she supposed to do? What was the point of hiring a lawyer at all?"
Reported by Xin Lin and Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing, Ka Pa and Lin Jing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.