Authorities in the central Chinese province of Hunan have ratcheted up the charges against human rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong, meaning he could face an even longer jail term.
Jiang's relatives in Hunan's provincial capital Changsha received written notification from the city's police department this week that the charges against him have been stepped up to "subversion of state power" from "incitement to subvert state power."
His father Jiang Lianghou received a formal notice of arrest saying that he was formally arrested on May 31 on suspicion of "subversion of state power," and is currently being held in the Changsha No. 1 Detention Center.
State security police also contacted his father to warn him not to make the information public.
Jiang, a prominent rights lawyer, has been denied access to lawyers hired by his family to defend him, and his relatives fear he has been subjected to torture while in detention.
His U.S.-based wife Jin Bianling said the new charge is a more serious one.
"They have charged him with a more serious crime, subversion of state power, which has been used against a number of detained lawyers and other citizens," Jin said.
"I am absolutely sure that Jiang has refused to 'confess,' and they are using this [more serious] charge to threaten him," she said.
"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, but heavier sentences are given in cases regarded as having "serious consequences."
Jailed Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo is currently serving a 13-year sentence for "incitement to subvert state power."
Jin said she is very worried about Jiang's personal safety inside the Changsha No. 1 Detention Center.
"Jiang Tianyong's sister went to the Changsha No. 1 Detention Center on June 6 to put money in his account ... but the clerk in charge didn't give her a receipt, nor did he go into the computer," Jin said.
"He just wrote the figure down in a notebook, saying that Jiang's was a special case," she said.
"They are likely keeping Jiang isolated in a separate cell and torturing him, this is what really worries me," Jin said. "I also worry that the police will just pocket the 300 yuan (U.S. $44) that his sister left for him."
Inmates in China's penal system make use of credit sent by relatives to buy daily necessities, but also to supplement a very poor prison diet with additional food rations, relatives of detainees have told RFA.
Lack of transparency
Amnesty International China researcher Patrick Poon hit out at a lack of transparency among the authorities' treatment of Jiang.
"There has been no transparency throughout Jiang Tianyong's detention, which means that neither his family nor the outside world has been able to find out whether he has been tortured or not," Poon told RFA.
"I really can't see what chance Jiang has of a fair trial," he said.
Rights lawyer Lin Qilei said this is the second time the authorities have modified the charges against Jiang.
"Each time the charges are changed, they become more serious," Lin said. "They can change these charges whenever it suits them, and still carry on with the legal procedures against him."
More than 300 human rights lawyers, law firm staff and associated activists were detained, questioned, placed under surveillance or travel bans, or had their immediate loved ones targeted by police, according to the Hong Kong-based Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group (CHRLCG).
The group said in an annual report issued last week that the outlook remains bleak for the profession, blaming a nationwide clampdown by the administration of President Xi Jinping on freedom of expression.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ng Yik-tung and Sing Man for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.