Authorities in the central Chinese province of Hunan are investigating six people connected to a prominent freelance journalist detained earlier this month on suspicion of "fraud" and running an "illegal business."
Chen Jieren was taken away from his home in Hunan’s Shaoyang city on July 6, and has been incommunicado since.
However, media sources told RFA that Chen and six other people are being held under "residential surveillance at a designated location."
"He's not being held in a [police-run] detention center, but under residential surveillance, which is similar to a black jail," one source who asked to remain anonymous said.
"He has no way to exercise his rights, because he is in a totally isolated location; the kind of place where nobody can hear you if you scream."
"They are using highly unusual methods of interrogation to achieve their goals, which are to make them, to their mind, confess and play ball," the source said.
Chen’s detention comes after he filed a complaint against Shaoyang municipal party secretary Deng Guangya on June 25, calling for him to be removed from office.
A few days later, a number of Chinese journalists received verbal notification from government propaganda teams that they shouldn't do any independent reporting on the case, but reprint approved copy instead.
A journalist who gave only his surname Shi told RFA that a total of six people have been detained so far in the investigation, according to an official statement carried by a number of different media outlets.
"The official line is being put out ... by the Hunan provincial police," Shi said. "It says that the investigation is linked to things that he wrote, and it says that six people have been detained: his wife, two brothers and two assistants."
"Anyone speaking out on [Chen's] behalf is having their posts deleted," he said.
Lawyers denied access to Chen
Meanwhile, Hunan police have denied permission for Beijing-based lawyers Tong Zongjin and Zhang Lei to meet with Chen and his brother Chen Minren, who is being investigated on the same charges.
The lawyers were turned away and given scant information about the case, Zhang said, adding that Chen is being targeted under a new "supervisory" system set up in March.
"Lawyers can't be instructed in cases under investigation by the state supervisory commission," he said. "He said all that they could tell us had already been announced via the Hunan provincial police department's official WeChat account."
The state supervisory commission was created by President Xi Jinping last March to monitor the conduct of staff in the ruling Chinese Communist Party, People's Congresses, government departments, judicial agencies, state-owned enterprises, and government-backed institutions, including state schools and higher education.
The new system massively expanded the number of people who can be investigated for corruption and other abuses of official power, and has been expanded to include contractors working for state and party organizations in its scope of inquiry.
The new commission merges the functions of the Communist Party's internal Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, administrative supervisory agencies, and some functions of state prosecution services, and has sweeping powers to question witnesses, interrogate suspects, search properties, freeze bank accounts, and seize suspicious assets.
It can also detain suspects for up to six months "at a designated location" with the approval of higher-ranking commissions, and prevent people from leaving China.
London-based rights group Amnesty International warned that the new commission is a "systemic threat" to human rights.
Under the new system, supervisory bodies can detain and interrogate virtually anyone working directly or indirectly for the government, including judges, academics, and employees of state-owned companies.
At the national level, the Supervisory Commission is ranked higher than the Supreme People’s Court and the top prosecutor’s office.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA’s Mandarin Service, and by Wong Siu-san and Lam Kwok-lap for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.