Six months after police raided Beijing's Fengrui law firm, detaining top rights attorney Wang Yu and colleagues at the start of a nationwide operation targeting China's embattled legal profession, their families are calling on the country's president to override the actions of the ministry of public security and release them.
"The ministry of public security is taking the lead in trampling on the Criminal Procedure Law, and the other local police are following suit," the attorneys and family members of 14 detained rights lawyers said in an open letter to President Xi Jinping.
"They have created a human rights disaster in which lawyers and civic activists are illegally arrested, detained incommunicado, and forcibly summoned for questioning," the letter said.
It hit out at the ministry for masterminding a nationwide operation targeting rights lawyers beginning on the night of July 9 in Beijing.
"Wielding the scepter of power and using political manipulation behind closed doors, the ministry has reneged on its own commitments, told lies, and gone against global trends," the letter said, calling on President Xi and premier Li Keqiang to hold the ministry criminally responsible.
"It has seriously damaged the progress of the rule of law in China," said the letter, which was signed by defense lawyers for detained rights attorneys Li Heping, Wang Yu, her husband Bao Longjun, Wang Quanzhang and Sui Muqin, among many others.
Four lawyers 'disappeared'
According to the Hong Kong-based Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group (CHRLCG), at least 307 lawyers, law firm staff, human right activists, and family members have recently been detained, questioned by police, forbidden to leave the country, held under residential surveillance, or are simply missing.
Of those, 28 remain under "residential surveillance," four are held in criminal detention, four have "disappeared," while four others remain under various forms of restriction, the group said in a Nov. 27 statement on its website.
The authorities have also slapped travel bans on 27 people, while an estimated 255 were freed after questioning, it said.
China’s tightly controlled state media has accused the Fengrui lawyers of “troublemaking” and seeking to incite mass incidents by publicizing cases where they defend some of the most vulnerable groups in society.
Wang Yu is well-known in China's human rights community, with her clients including jailed moderate ethnic Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti and outspoken rights activist Cao Shunli, who died after being denied medical treatment in detention.
She has also defended members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual group, as well as forced evictees and petitioners seeking to protect their rights and those of women and children, as well as the rights to freedom of religion, housing, and expression.
Earlier this week, Zhao Wei, lawyer for Li Heping, told RFA that he had finally met with his client after being denied a meeting for more than five months.
"People ... are still under huge pressure in this crackdown, whether they are lawyers or other kinds of activists, with a lot of harassment," Zhao said.
"The personal safety and the professional freedom of lawyers is constantly under threat," he said. "They are basically targeting the whole profession, whether they are behind bars or not."
'Getting darker and darker'
Activists in Hong Kong on Wednesday also called for the lawyers' and rights activists' release.
"These lawyers were offering legal assistance to citizens, and yet there is no legal help for them," pan-democratic lawmaker and rights activist Leung Kwok-hung told RFA on Wednesday.
"Hong Kong people should pay attention to this situation," he said, calling on professional lawyers' bodies in the former British colony to speak out in support of the detained attorneys.
Meanwhile, Richard Choi of the Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movement in China, called on Beijing to free the lawyers at a protest in Hong Kong.
"We have brought with us a pair of angel's wings to symbolize the freedom that we are striving for, and because we hope that these lawyers who have lost their freedom will one day be set free," Choi said.
Rights lawyer and CHRLCG chairman Albert Ho said he fears things could get still worse for China's rights community, however.
"What we are seeing is further tightening of control, but we can't say it's the worst it can get," he said.
"There is no darkest time; there is only the sense that it is getting darker and darker," Ho said.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.