A group of Chinese rights lawyers and activists has called on the United States to put pressure on Beijing at this year's bilateral human rights dialogue in the wake of a nationwide crackdown on the country's embattled legal profession and a slew of repressive laws.
They say previous dialogues have done little to improve matters for peaceful critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, nor those who seek to stand up for their legal rights using the judicial system.
While the dialogues had drawn attention to the issues and provided a platform for bilateral discussion, they "did not substantially help improve China’s human rights situation, which, on the contrary, has deteriorated in the past two years," according to a statement signed by 38 rights lawyers and activists ahead of the dialogues that run from Thursday to Friday in Washington.
"What should not be ignored is that this round of the human rights dialogue takes place in the backdrop of a massive police operations," said the statement, translated and released by the overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network, which collates and translates reports from groups in China.
The authorities have carried out a massive program of "enforced involuntary disappearances, interrogation, and harassment of lawyers and other rights activists," it said, adding that the targeting of rights lawyers had already been an issue before the July 9 night raid on Beijing's Fengrui law firm kicked off the latest operation.
It said Beijing has simultaneously been rolling out a slew of new laws and amendments to existing legislation that legitimize political persecution and the suppression of human rights.
"The Chinese government should release all lawyers and activists who have been arbitrarily detained and forcibly disappeared (secretly imprisoned) since July 9," the statement said.
"Both sides should put forth concrete and verifiable plans to avoid continued persecution of lawyers and activists after the dialogue."
It cited a number of amendments and new laws that are in breach of China's Constitution, including amendments to the Criminal Law and the Criminal Procedure Law.
Risk of retaliation
There are concerns that those who signed the statement remain at risk of official retaliation for speaking out.
"The Chinese government should guarantee the personal safety of non-government activists (including lawyers) who have expressed views and made suggestions regarding the dialogue," the statement said.
It said that only the participation of civic societies in both countries can guarantee any progress in bilateral human rights dialogues.
"If the rights of lawyers can't be guaranteed, then still less will there be protection for the rights of other citizens," rights lawyer Han Qingfang, who signed the letter, told RFA on Wednesday.
"We want to use everyone's concern for human rights in the hope of improving the lot of rights lawyers," she said.
The crackdown on lawyers has also targeted members of their staff and associates.
The daughter of detained rights lawyer Li Heping said his assistant Gao Yue has now been detained on suspicion of "incitement to subvert state power," and had been denied permission to meet with a lawyer.
Gao's lawyer Li Guobei said the charges against Gao were opaque, and that the authorities have refused to share any information, saying that the case involves matters of national security.
"We don't understand exactly how her actions are supposed to have broken the law," Li said. "They didn't give us a formal reply."
"We will continue to try to find out the details of the case. Without [knowing them], it's hard to say how things will turn out."
'Virtually no impact'
CHRD said the human rights dialogues have ceased to attract much interest in the media in recent years, and have had "virtually no impact" on Beijing's human rights record to date.
It called on the U.S. government to engage actively with civil society groups ahead of the talks. "[It should] prioritize the most serious individual cases and patterns of human rights violations as main topics in the dialogue with Chinese officials," the group said in a statement on its website.
At least 320 lawyers and activists have been targeted by the nationwide police operation, and at least 23 of them remain in criminal detention, 'disappeared,' or under residential surveillance in unknown locations, CHRD said.
"For individuals who have been disappeared, nothing is known of their situations, and all those remaining in police custody are at risk of torture," it said.
The group also called for the release of jailed 2010 Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo and for an end to the house arrest of his wife, Liu Xia.
Veteran journalist Gao Yu, dissident Wang Bingzhang, rights activist Chen Xi, banned opposition party member Zhu Yufu are all in poor health in prison, and should be offered better medical treatment or release on medical parole, it said.
A number of lawyers were subjected to long periods in pre-trial detention even before the current crackdown began, including Guo Feixiong, Pu Zhiqiang and Tang Jingling, it said.
"They have been subjected to torture or inhumane treatment, including round-the-clock interrogations and, in Guo’s case, solitary confinement for two years, which should be raised as a serious concern," CHRD said.
It added: "The U.S. side must at least exert significant pressure on Chinese officials on emblematic individual cases and emerging patterns of rights abuses."
Beijing-based rights activist Han Ying said the human rights community in China is still reeling at the sheer scale of the operation against rights lawyers.
"This is a major operation, comparatively, and a lot of international agencies and NGOs have spoken out about it," Han said. "But we never imagined it would be on such a scale."
Earlier this week, a group of U.S. Senators wrote to President Obama calling on him to put pressure on President Xi Jinping during his state visit to the U.S. next month.
"Under President Xi, there has been an extraordinary assault on rule of law and civil society in China," the Senators wrote.
The detentions of lawyers send "a chilling message to civil and political rights advocates, and to the Chinese people," the letter said.
"We ask that you call publicly and privately for China's immediate release of these detained lawyers and activists, or at the very least, that China grant them due process."
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan and Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.