Authorities in the central Chinese province of Hunan on Thursday moved ahead with the case against detained rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong, bringing formal subversion charges against him, his lawyer.
Jiang's relatives in Hunan's provincial capital Changsha received verbal notification from the city's police department on Thursday that he has been formally arrested on suspicion of "incitement to subvert state power."
The prominent rights lawyer has been held under residential surveillance at an unknown location since last November, and the authorities say he has fired defense lawyers hired by his family.
"His status has been switched to that of formal arrest now," Tan Chenshou, who was hired by Jiang's family to defend him, told RFA. "This was approved by the state prosecutor, but the investigations are still continuing in this case, which is still with the police."
"I think they are doing what they did with [fellow detained rights lawyer] Xie Yang and ... dragging this out to the maximum extent possible."
He said the circumstances suggest that police have been unable to get Jiang to "confess" to the charges against him.
"It looks as if Jiang Tianyong is probably refusing to confess, to judge from this," Tan said.
No crime to confess to
Jiang's U.S.-based wife Jin Bianling said her husband hasn't committed any crime to confess to.
"Jiang Tianyong has worked tirelessly on behalf of vulnerable groups, and to save lawyers detained since July 2015, and now he has been detained," Jin said. "He is totally innocent, and [he] has certainly been the victim of serious torture."
"I am extremely concerned about his personal safety, and fear that his life could be in danger," she said.
Meanwhile, fellow rights attorney Chen Jinxue said Jiang was likely forced into accepting a government-appointed lawyer.
"Jiang Tianyong's ... relatives have issued a statement saying that they don't recognize his order to fire his lawyers," Chen said. "This is because it was made when Jiang wasn't free, and there is a likelihood that he was subjected to torture."
"So it isn't valid, and his family will continue to instruct Tan Chenshou as his defense lawyer, and continue to apply for a meeting," he said.
Jiang's detention came after he visited the wife of Changsha-based detained rights lawyer Xie Yang in a bid to help the family with the case.
But he 'disappeared' soon after trying to board a train back to his Beijing home.
Bleak outlook for rights lawyers
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 on Thursday that the outlook remains bleak for the profession, blaming a nationwide clampdown by the administration of President Xi Jinping on freedom of expression.
"Human rights lawyers had another challenging and difficult year in 2016 and the outlook is bleak," the report said. "The Xi Jinping administration’s emphasis on state security and ideology and the arbitrary use of legal apparatus to rein in civil freedoms bode ill for human rights lawyers."
It said the ruling Chinese Communist Party has stepped up a "smear campaign" against lawyers and rights activists, accusing them of colluding with "hostile overseas forces" to try to bring down the government.
"State media and pro-Beijing Hong Kong media have many times paraded lawyers and activists detained in the ... crackdown on television confessing to their supposed guilt, before they even went on trial," it said.
Government guidelines requiring lawyers to show their support for the Communist Party and toe the party line have severely limited the profession's ability to do its job, CHRLCG said.
"These measures have wide-ranging and long-lasting negative impacts," it said.
But it said public interest lawyers in China have continued to take on politically sensitive cases that involve some element of official wrongdoing.
"China’s rights lawyers are refusing to be intimidated ... and continue to fight for their rights," the report said, calling on the international community to step up pressure on Beijing over the crackdown.
Reported by Ding Wenqi for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ng Yik-tung and Sing Man for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.