Police in the central Chinese city of Wuhan on Friday beat up and detained a group of rights activist who went to inquire about the whereabouts of Zhao Suli, wife of veteran activist Qin Yongmin, who remains missing, nearly three years after being detained veteran alongside her husband.
Zhao Suli was detained alongside her husband and veteran opposition activist Qin Yongmin in January 2015, and both were initially held in 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 nearly three years.
Zhao's sisters have previously told RFA they believe she may be dead, but Qin, a co-founder of the short-lived, banned opposition China Democracy Party (CDP), reportedly thinks she is still alive.
On Friday, police swooped upon a group of rights activists campaigning alongside her two sisters and son for Zhao's release, or at least some information about her fate.
An activist surnamed Li from the southwestern region of Guangxi said he and a group of fellow activists were detained and forced to leave Wuhan this week by dozens of police after they traveled there to attend Qin's trial, which has been postponed, and to report Zhao missing as a form of protest at her disappearance.
"Zhao Suli has been disappeared for nearly three years, so we wanted to report her as a missing person," Li said. "We also went to the complaints department [of the Wuhan municipal government] where we were received by an official."
The group showed up at the police department in Wuhan's Qingshan district on Thursday to register a missing person, but were shoved aboard a truck by unidentified men shortly after leaving the police department, and taken to the high-speed railway station, where they were put aboard trains for their hometowns, he said.
"There were a lot of people in black uniforms, and they took off all of their insignia before they made their move," Li said. "They were rough and violence, and they shoved us into the truck ... where they threatened us, saying they would beat us to death."
Thugs in black uniforms
Fellow activist Chen Siming was also at the Qingshan police station, he told RFA.
"We got to the Qingshan police department at about 10.00 a.m. and demanded to know where Zhao Suli is, and they received us, before going into a room and speaking in low voices for a long time," Chen said.
"Then, just after we left at about 1.15 p.m., outside the gates, a bunch of thugs in black uniforms came up and forced us into a truck," he said. "They forcibly separated us from Zhao Suli's sisters and son, and now we don't know where they are."
"They they took us to the high-speed railway station."
He said rights activist Xu Qin, who heads the China Rights Observer organization founded by Qin, was injured after being roughly treated by the men.
"One of us, a guy called Sun Dongsheng, had his leg broken by one of the uniformed men; I saw it with my own eyes," Chen said. "They wouldn't allow any of us to speak, and they gave us no explanation."
"I was secretly filming it on the truck but they saw me and snatched my phone away, and deleted all of the video before giving it back to me," he said.
'Picking quarrels and stirring up trouble'
A campaigner surnamed Yuan said the group had been given two options.
"The first choice was that we should all buy tickets and leave, and the second was that they would take us somewhere we didn't want to go," Yuan said. "Some of us weren't in good physical shape, and they had been treated very roughly, and they weren't allowed to get medicine or even go to the toilet."
She said she was among four activists who opted to leave immediately, while the others had stayed in the truck.
Repeated calls to the Qingshan district police department rang unanswered during office hours on Wednesday.
A Wuhan-based activist surnamed Yu said he had managed to call the police and ask why the activists had been detained, however.
"I called the Qingshan branch and the police officer who answered said they were 'picking quarrels and stirring up trouble,'" Yu said.
Qin, who is being held at the Wuhan No. 2 Detention Center, was originally scheduled to stand trial on Friday on charges of "incitement to subvert state power," but the date was postponed at the last minute by the authorities, citing 'procedural' reasons.
It is unclear exactly how many of his and Zhao's supporters remain in detention. RFA was unable to confirm the whereabouts of Zhao's sisters and son.
A contemporary of exiled dissident Wei Jingsheng, Qin was sentenced to eight years in prison for "counterrevolutionary propaganda and subversion" in the wake of China's Democracy Wall movement in 1981.
He served a further two years' "re-education through labor" in 1993 after he penned a controversial document titled the "Peace Charter."
Qin then served a 12-year jail term for subversion after he helped found the CDP in 1998 in spite of a ban on opposition political parties.
"Subversion of state power" carries a minimum jail term of 10 years in cases where the person is judged to have played a leading role.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Lok-to for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.