Former Chinese Supreme Court judge Wang Linqing, who in December helped blow the whistle on judicial misconduct at the highest level, is now under criminal investigation for "leaking state secrets," state media reported.
State-run news agency Xinhua said a former disciplinary investigation into Wang's conduct had now been handed over to police.
The announcement came as state television aired a video "confession" from Wang, his first public comment after he disappeared into incommunicado detention on Jan. 3, after making two whistle-blowing videos.
Wang, a former assistant judge at the Supreme People's Court in Beijing, was likely being held under residential surveillance at an unknown location under disciplinary measures by the National Supervision Commission, a U.S.-based rights group said.
The detention of Wang, who handled appeals and reviews of civil cases from around China, came after he exposed two cases in which crucial case files had disappeared, RSDL Monitor reported on its website.
In the first whistleblowing video received by the China Times newspaper on Dec. 20, 2018, Wang said he had requested surveillance footage from the president of the Supreme Court after discovering that the case files had disappeared in a case he was reviewing.
He was initially told that nobody had appeared to retrieve the files except him, and grew suspicious of foul play after later being told that "the camera was broken."
His allegations were prompted by earlier claims from social media commentator and former state television talk show host Cui Yongyuan that files relating to a 100 billion yuan mineral ownership case had been stolen from Wang's office.
Threat of trouble
A second whistleblowing video made by Wang appeared online on Jan. 2, in which he said he had been under pressure from the supervision bureau within the Supreme People's Court to decide a multibillion yuan dispute in favor of a specific party.
According to Xinhua, the month-long investigation "found that Yan Changlin, a former senior supervisory official with the SPC's supervision bureau, was suspected of accepting requests from one party involved in the case and attempting to meddle in the case, which was handled by Wang at the time."
Yan is "suspected of serious violations of [Communist] Party disciplinary rules and laws and has been investigated by the anti-graft agency, but the 'revenge' claim of Wang was not true," it cited investigators as saying.
In the Jan. 2 whistleblowing video, Wang said that when he refused the request, he was warned that he would face "trouble" as a result. He was detained the day after the video was published online.
"Judge Wang was taken to a hotel near the Supreme Court in Beijing for interrogation by [an] investigation team on Jan. 3," RDSL Monitor said.
He resurfaced on Feb. 22 in the now-familiar form of a video confession aired by state-run CCTV's "Focus On" program.
In the broadcast video, Wang admits to taking case files home after his superiors said he would no longer sit on the panel of judges.
"Actually, my aim in taking them home was to stop other people handling this case," Wang said. "I had put a huge amount into this case over five years ... so I didn't want anyone else handling it."
"This case were highly sensitive, with huge sums of money involved," he said. "It felt good to be in charge of such a case ... so I took the files home partly out of a personal grudge, and partly because I didn't want anyone else dealing with it."
On Jan. 9, Cui Yongyuan—who has also commented that Wang is being 'scapegoated'—posted to the Sina Weibo social media platform, saying he had spoken with Wang, who was unable to meet with him.
Beijing-based lawyer Li Zhuang confirmed to RFA that Cui is currently safe and well at home, but said he was "in a meeting and unable to comment."
Meanwhile, a source involved in the whistleblowing effort said they also had been unable to contact Zhao Faqi, one of the parties to the mineral rights case.
Another source close to the case said neither Cui nor Zhao had lost their liberty, but were currently being asked to "cooperate with an investigation."
But it was hard to say how things would turn out for them further down the line, the source said.
Meanwhile, the ruling Chinese Communist Party's censors have removed law books authored by Wang from the shelves of bookshops across China, according to his publisher.
"We can't sell them because something happened with him," an employee at the Legal Publishing Co. told RFA. "We have been told we can't distribute them any more, starting last Friday."
"Every volume is accounted for, so they would know if we sold even a single copy," the employee said. "We can't even send them to customers who have already paid for them. It's a real pain, because they're sitting in the warehouse and we can't sell them."
An official who answered the phone at the Ministry of Justice referred enquiries to the main office, and declined to comment on the case.
A former classmate of Wang's surnamed Zhang said he had paid "a heavy price" for his whistleblowing.
"Under the current circumstances, he was never going to be able to help much with reform [of the judicial system] or progress," Zhang said. "But we didn't want this to happen to him. We would want to see him emerge unscathed."
He said there was no good reason to ban Wang's books, as he had yet to be convicted or his right to publish stripped from him.
Reported by Wong Siu-san and Tam Siu-yin for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Shi Shan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.