Rights groups hit out at Beijing on Wednesday amid growing calls for justice for the victims of enforced disappearances at the hands of the Chinese government, calling for an end to the widespread practice of holding detainees for long periods of time in an unknown location, with no access to lawyers or family members.
Wednesday's International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances has underscored the scope of the practice in China, where human rights lawyers, family members of dissidents, Hong Kong booksellers, Tibetan lamas and Uyghur religious students have all gone missing at the hands of authorities.
The wife of prominent Chinese human rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong said many of those detained in a crackdown on rights lawyers have been subjected to such disappearances since July 2015, when the administration of President Xi Jinping launched a nationwide police operation targeting the country's legal profession and associated activists and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
"Lawyers detained during the July 2015 crackdown are frequently subjected to such treatment," Jiang's U.S.-based wife Jin Bianling told RFA. "For example, forcible disappearances, torture, and forced medication."
"Today is the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, and I call upon the Chinese authorities to reveal the whereabouts of Jiang Tianyong, as well as that of [rights activist] Wu Gan and lawyer Wang Quanzhang," she said.
"Enforced disappearances are illegal, and I strongly urge the Chinese government to end this practice."
Jiang was recently tried behind closed doors by a court in the central city of Changsha, where he made a videotaped "confession" to charges of incitement to subvert state power. Jin has said the trial was a "sham," and Jiang's confession was likely made as a result of torture or threats to his safety or that of his family members.
Hubei-based activist Xu Qin, who heads the China Rights Observer organization, said the family of Zhao Suli, wife of his group's founder, has been trying to locate her for more than two years after her initial detention.
"Zhao Suli is a family member of a political prisoner who has been forcibly disappeared," Xu said. "Actually, we are seeing an increase in the use of enforced disappearances of citizens by the Chinese government."
"We would like to file lawsuits with an international court over these cases, to have some avenue of redress," he said.
Missing for more than two years
Zhao was detained alongside her husband, China Rights Observer founder Qin Yongmin, in 2015, and both were initially held in an unknown locations.
But while Qin has since been tracked down by friends and lawyers to a detention center in the central city of Wuhan, Zhao has been missing for more than two years.
Meanwhile, the family of disappeared Taiwan political activist Lee Ming-cheh still have no news of him following his detention on national security charges on arrival at the southern border city of Zhuhai on March 19.
Heidi Huang, who heads the rights group Covenants Watch on the democratic island, said Lee's detention came after China's state security police infiltrated his social media friends circles.
"There's a friend of Lee Ming-cheh's who was in the same chat group ... and he said the Chinese authorities are deliberately going after Taiwan residents to frighten the people of Taiwan," Huang told RFA.
"They mock us, saying we are ridiculous, if we say we want to ask for assistance from the United Nations."
In Hong Kong, activists gathered outside the ruling Chinese Communist Party's representative office in the city to protest the continued "disappearance" of Liu Xia, widow of late Nobel peace laureate and political prisoner Liu Xiaobo, who died in police custody of liver cancer in July.
Barrister Chow Hang Tung of the Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movement in China told the rally that the only news of Liu Xia came from an anonymous video recently posted to YouTube in which she says she is safe.
"Liu Xia has made it clear all along that she wants to leave this unfree country ... Liu Xiaobo wanted to leave along with Liu Xia before he died, and we strongly urge the Chinese government to stop curtailing Liu Xia's liberty, and respect her right to freedom of movement, and her right to leave the country," Chow said.
Long-time rights activist and former lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung, who was at the protest marking the end of the traditional seven-week mourning period for Liu Xiaobo, said the couple are not forgotten.
"We won't forget that Liu Xiaobo was persecuted to death, and continues to be persecuted after his death [with the persecution of his widow]," Leung said. "We in Hong Kong must stand firm and speak out on their behalf."
'Despicable' treatment of Liu Xia
And pan-democratic Civic Party lawmaker Kwok Ka Ki said the treatment of Liu Xia, who is believed to be in the custody of state security police somewhere in the southwestern province of Yunnan, is "despicable."
"Liu Xiaobo has already lost his life, and now they are carrying out these despicable acts against his family members," Kwok said.
"Liu Xia has been under long-term house arrest, and ... wasn't even allowed to pay her respects when her parents died," he said. "Now she has mental health problems. No-one thought she would continue to be held under surveillance even after her husband died."
In the United States, exile rights organizations named nearly 30 members of the mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uyghur ethnic group as missing, presumed detained, calling on the Chinese government to reveal their whereabouts.
Many Uyghurs were among some 200 ethnic minorities with Chinese passports targeted last month by Egypt's secret police in an operation activists said was requested by Beijing.
The 200 students, many of them religious students at Cairo’s Al-Azhar Islamic University, were detained since July 4, rounded up in restaurants or at their homes, with others seized at airports as they tried to flee to safer countries, sources told RFA’s Uyghur Service at the time.
Since the enforced return of Uyghur students from Egypt this year, there has been little to no information as to their whereabouts and condition, according to Omer Kanat, head of the Uyghur Human Rights Project
The group called on Wednesday for their release, as well as information on a large number of enforced disappearances in the wake of ethnic clashes in Urumqi, in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, in 2009.
"It is time for the Chinese authorities to demonstrate responsibility for the enforced disappearances that occurred in Urumqi in 2009," group director Omer Kanat said.
"For the state to disappear individuals constitutes one of the most egregious of human rights abuses," he said. "China must acknowledge its actions and make suitable redress to the victims and their families."
Missing Uyghurs, Panchen Lama
And the World Uyghur Congress said the government actively prevents family members from finding out what has happened to "disappeared" loved ones.
"Many of the victims' family members have attempted to uncover the whereabouts, condition and fate of the disappeared, but they continually find their requests for information being rejected or ignored, leading to a stubborn culture of impunity," the group said.
"In several cases, Chinese police have even arrested family members of the disappeared for speaking and asking about the fate of their loved ones."
It added: "It has been a repeated and continuous practice by Chinese authorities to silence those who sought to flee oppression to seek a better life."
The group cited the Egypt group, as well as 20 Uyghur refugees who were returned to China from Cambodia in December 2009 and 109 Uyghurs were returned to China from Thailand on July 8th, 2015.
"Outrageously, this is still occurring in the present moment, with little to no international condemnation," the WUC said in a statement on its website. "It is unconscionable that enforced disappearance still exists as a tool of control and repression in modern day China."
It called on the government to repeal laws allowing "residential surveillance at a designated location" in cases that the authorities say involve matters of national security, a set of charges often brought against peaceful critics of the government.
Tibetans around the world, meanwhile, recalled the case of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, who at the age of six in 1995 was recognized by the Dalai Lama as the reincarnation of the 11th Panchen Lama, one of Tibet’s most important religious leaders. Shortly after that designation, the boy and his family were taken into custody by Chinese authorities and have not been seen or heard from since. Gedhun Choekyi Nyima has for years been referred to as "the world's youngest political prisoner.".
China, which installed its own Panchen Lama, has said Gedhun Choekyi Nyima is living a normal life, but has not allowed access to the young man and his family.
Reported by Wen Yuqing and Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Hsia Hsiao-hwa, Wang Siwei and Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.