Authorities in China's Sichuan have prevented the lawyer of Early Rain Covenant Church pastor Wang Yi, who is currently facing subversion charges, from representing him, RFA has learned.
Wang, who founded the church, was detained by police in Sichuan's provincial capital Chengdu on Dec. 14, 2018 on suspicion of "incitement to subvert state power," alongside dozens of church members in a raid that prompted an international outcry.
But while the majority of those detained in the wake of the crackdown have since been released, Wang remains behind bars, while his lawyer Zhang Peihong has been prevented from representing him.
"This morning, the prosecutor that I've been dealing with this whole time called me and told me that they didn't approve me as Wang Yi's lawyer," Zhang told RFA on Wednesday. "The reason was some things I had written [online]."
He said Wang had told him at their last meeting that he was "still considering" whether or not to keep Zhang as his lawyer.
Zhang has previously posted on Facebook, which is banned in China, that he wouldn't be writing updates about Wang "in order to secure the right to defend him."
An Early Rain church member told RFA that there had been some kind of standoff between Zhang and the authorities.
"Now he has been formally notified that he isn't allowed to represent Wang Yi," the church member said. "He had originally been hired by Wang Yi's parents."
But he said the decision was highly unlikely to have come from Wang himself.
"This is definitely about the authorities telling Wang Yi in the detention center that he's not allowed to have Zhang Peihong represent him," he said.
Wang's wife Jiang Rong is currently out on "bail" after being detained alongside her husband during the initial raid on the church.
Both she and Wang's parents are currently under close surveillance by state security police.
The church member said the lawyer's dismissal could be an indication that the authorities are preparing to take Wang Yi's case to trial.
Deprived of food, water, sunlight
Meanwhile, Early Rain church member Gou Zhongcan was released on Oct. 22 after being held for several months in a "legal study center" on charges of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble."
A Christian believer surnamed Wang said Gou had been held for the duration in a basement and deprived of access to sunlight.
Some church members who were detained in raids on Dec. 9 and 10 and later released said the police had beaten them, and one detainee described being tied to a chair and deprived of water and food for 24 hours, rights groups reported at the time.
According to the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), the authorities also ransacked and sealed Early Rain Covenant Church’s properties, including offices, a kindergarten, a seminary, and a Bible college, and searched the homes of many of its members.
Police also forced church members to sign a pledge not to attend the church again, while the church’s accounts on China’s social media platform WeChat were removed, it said.
Around half of the church's original membership remain under close surveillance by police.
'Influential public intellectual'
Wang Yi had earlier published an essay critical of the government’s tight control over religion, and calling on China’s Christians to resist and peacefully disobey new rules issued by the ruling Chinese Communist Party severely restricting the activities of religious organizations.
Wang, 46, founded the Early Rain Covenant church in 2008 after several years of political activism that saw him named as "one of the most influential public intellectuals" by the Southern Weekend newspaper in 2004.
A graduate the Sichuan University Law School, Wang went on to teach at Chengdu University. He also founded an online forum to study progress in China towards constitutional government.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party, which embraces atheism, exercises tight controls over any form of religious practice among its citizens.
China is home to an estimated 68 million Protestants, of whom 23 million worship in state-affiliated churches, and some nine million Catholics, 5.7 million of whom are in state-sponsored organizations.
The administration of President Xi Jinping regards Christianity as a dangerous foreign import, with officials warning last year against the "infiltration of Western hostile forces" in the form of religion.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Lok-to for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.