Authorities in the Chinese capital look set to revoke the business license of the Beijing Fengrui law firm, the focus of an ongoing operation targeting human rights lawyers and activist that began with raids on its partners in July 2015.
In a "Notice of Administrative Penalty Hearing" sent to the firm on Monday, the Beijing municipal department of justice said Fengrui is suspected of having breached regulations governing law firms "to a serious degree."
"Our investigations have revealed that your law firm has been negligent in managing its lawyers, and has connived to harbor and protect lawyers engaged in illegal activities," the notice says.
It cited the subversion case against former Fengrui head Zhou Shifeng, currently serving a seven-year jail term for "subversion of state power," and the campaigning activities of rights activist Wu Gan, known by his online nickname "The Butcher," who was allegedly "instructed" by Zhou.
Under Zhou's direction, Fengrui took on sensitive cases, defending dissidents, members of the banned and persecuted Falun Gong spiritual sect and others who challenged the authorities.
The firm was the first target of police raids and detentions in July 2015 that broadened into a nationwide operation targeting more than 300 lawyers, law firm staff and associated rights activists for detention, professional sanctions, house arrest and travel bans—including for family members.
Former Fengrui partner Liu Xiaoyuan said the allegations of wrongdoing by the department of justice were applying rule changes that didn't happen until September 2015 to actions carried out by Zhou before July 2015.
"They are using actions that took place before the rules changed as a basis for this punishment," Liu said. "There is clearly an issue with the way they are applying the laws and regulations."
He said there was little point in the hearing, and that the remaining nine Fengrui lawyers would be waiving their right to attend.
"What use could a hearing like that be? It could only be a matter of going through the motions," Liu said, adding that the government clearly wishes to put a formal end to the firm, which hasn't operated since the crackdown.
Liu said none of the Fengrui lawyers who remain at large has been able to practice their profession since the July 2015 raids on the firm, and they have been denied permission to move to a different firm.
Sources close to Fengrui said the administrative case against Fengrui is being spearheaded by Zhu Yuzhu, deputy head of the lawyers' supervisory body within the Beijing department of justice.
Zhu confirmed that he is in charge of the Fengrui case, when contacted by RFA on Tuesday, but declined to comment further.
"We aren't giving interviews on this topic," Zhu said. "We have rules in this department, that we're not allowed to give interviews, so you'll have to get in touch with our external affairs department."
The amendments to the Ministry of Justice's "Administrative Measures for Law Firms," which came into effect on Jan. 1, 2016, targeted lawyers who speak out about rights abuses within the judicial system, placing them at risk of losing their livelihoods, especially in "sensitive" political cases.
The new rules effectively banned lawyers from speaking to the media or walking out of court in response to torture, forced confessions or other violations of their clients' rights.
Lawyers were also banned from putting pressure on the authorities by speaking out in public about cases, and from "slandering" judicial and law enforcement agencies.
Petitions and signature campaigns, open letters, gathering online in chat groups, or expressing solidarity with parties involved in their cases are also penalized.
Any lawyers engaging in "putting out distorted or misleading information and commentary" face sanctions for "malicious speculation" on cases, one of the charges leveled at Wu Gan, allegedly acting under Zhou's instructions.
Chen Jiewen, who heads the Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, said the authorities have continued to put pressure on law firms regarded as problematic since the July 2015 crackdown.
"Law firms are under huge [political] pressure right now," Chen told RFA. "Law firms have a huge incentive to stop lawyers taking on human rights cases, and current practice basically uses them as a monitoring mechanism, because they are being held responsible for the individual actions of their members."
"Individual lawyers are also under huge personal pressure when they take on a human rights case, even more so, and they have to worry about whether it will have a negative impact on their colleagues, too," he said.
Chen said government control of the legal profession is tightening all the time, which will likely result in a dramatic fall in human rights cases accepted by Chinese law firms.
Beijing-based rights lawyer Li Wei agreed.
"There is a palpable change under way, ever since the July 2015 crackdown, as fewer and fewer lawyers are coming forward to defend certain cases," Li said. "In particular, some of the more politically sensitive cases."
"If wasn't obvious immediately after the crackdown, because a lot of those lawyers knew each other, and they came forward out of compassion or a sense of justice," he said. "But probably since about the second half of last year, in particular after Yu Wensheng and Sui Muqing were targeted, we started to notice it."
Rights lawyer Yu Wensheng has been held since Jan. 19 in connection with online posts deemed critical of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, on suspicion of "incitement to subvert state power."
He has been denied access to a lawyer or visits from his friends and family.
Earlier this year, authorities in the southern province of Guangdong revoked the business license of rights lawyer Sui Muqing after he ignored official warnings not to take on so many politically sensitive cases.
Sui had defended high-profile activists including Sichuan-based rights activist Huang Qi and Guangdong-based legal advocate Guo Feixiong.
Reported by Wong Siu-san and Yeung Mak for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.