Authorities in the northern Chinese city of Tianjin have indicted prominent rights lawyer Li Heping on unknown charges, paving the way for a trial, while other lawyers detained in a July 2015 crackdown remain in pretrial detention.
Tianjin police passed Li's case to state prosecutors in the city on Dec. 5, defense attorney Ma Lianshun told RFA.
"[We] went to the No. 2 branch of the Tianjin People's Procuratorate ... where they told us that they were indicting him [on Dec. 5]," Liang said. "They told us to call back to find out the charges against him ... but then they said they couldn't confirm my credentials, so I can't tell you what they are."
An employee who answered the phone at the Tianjin People's Procuratorate No. 2 Branch declined to comment.
Fellow rights lawyer Liang Xiaojun told RFA that officials there had also refused to reveal the charges against Li when he contacted them.
"They had tables set up outside because it was Rule of Law day [on Tuesday]," Liang said. "The procuratorate had set up tables outside to receive visitors, and we were able to meet with a department head."
"I brought up the issue that law enforcement agencies had refused to recognize the lawyers hired by [Li's] family to defend him, and of the illegal actions of the police in finding a lawyer for him," Liang said. "The procuratorate said I could lodge an official complaint."
"I told them, 'Even if I do that, you won't pay any attention, or do anything about it,'" he said. "They just hemmed and hawed at this."
China has detained, questioned, or otherwise placed restrictions on at least 319 lawyers, law firm staff, human right activists, and family members since raids on the Beijing Fengrui law firm launched a nationwide crackdown on the night of July 9, 2015.
At least 16 remain in some form of pretrial detention, mostly on subversion or state security charges, while dozens of others have been banned from leaving the country or placed under house arrest or other forms of surveillance, the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group said on its website.
According to Liang, Li's case is being prosecuted because it has already been referred back twice to police for further investigation, the maximum number of times allowed.
However, fellow rights lawyers Xie Yanyi, Wang Quanzhang,and Li Chunfu's cases have all been sent back to police for further investigation, he said.
The four were initially detained in July 2015 on suspicion of "subversion of state power."
The news of Li's indictment came as a group of United Nations human rights experts called on the ruling Chinese Communist Party to investigate the whereabouts of disappeared rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong, who has been incommunicado since Nov. 21.
Jiang lost contact with friends and family during a visit to the Hunan provincial capital Changsha, during which he visited Chen Guiqiu, the wife of detained rights lawyer Xie Yang, in Changsha.
"We cannot rule out the possibility that Mr. Jiang may have been disappeared by the State agents because of his human rights work," U.N. experts Philip Alston, Michel Forst and David Kaye said in a joint statement on the Human Rights Commissioner's website.
"Over the past years, we have received information that Mr. Jiang has been arrested, detained, and beaten by the police and state security officers on multiple occasions as a result of his human rights work," the statement said.
It said Jiang's disappearance comes amid hundreds of reported detentions, disappearances, and other forms of official harassment of rights lawyers since July 2015.
"We fear that Mr. Jiang’s disappearance may be directly linked to his advocacy and he may be at risk of torture," the statement said.
Act of reprisal
Alston, who met with Jiang in August on his last visit to China as Special Rapporteur on human rights, said the meeting may also have contributed to the lawyer's disappearance, which would be an act of reprisal under international human rights standards.
"States must refrain from and protect all persons from acts of reprisal," Alston said, adding that other individuals he met with during his visit had also been targeted by the authorities since.
"Governments must provide assurance that no persons will suffer intimidation, threats, harassment or punishment, be subjected to judicial proceedings or to any other kind of reprisals by any means whatsoever, for their cooperation with the U.N. experts," Alston said.
The experts called on the Chinese authorities to investigate Jiang's whereabouts and guarantee him access to a lawyer and his family, as well as the medical care he requires.
Jiang, 45, is in poor health with very high blood pressure, according to fellow activists.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.