Chinese authorities on Thursday released a top rights lawyer but continued to keep three others in a detention center after they tried to campaign for the release of an inmate from a "black jail" in northeastern China, activists said.
Five activists pushing for the release of the trio in Heilongjiang province's Jiamusi city were detained late Wednesday but freed after interrogations by police.
Rights lawyer Zhang Junjie was released after being detained alongside fellow attorneys Jiang Tianyong, Tang Jitian and Wang Cheng nearly a week ago, another rights lawyer said.
"One of the lawyers who was illegally detained, Zhang Junjie, has already been released," Shandong-based Xi Xiangdong told RFA.
"He has already been forcibly removed from [Jiamusi]."
Calls to Zhang's cell phone resulted in a recorded voice message on Thursday: "It is currently not convenient for me to take calls."
Xi, who is currently in Jiamusi to protest on the lawyers' behalf, said Tang, Jiang and Wang were still behind bars, however, and haven't yet been allowed to meet with their own lawyers.
"They are saying that the detained lawyers are fake lawyers, because they haven't got a lawyer's license," he said. "Nobody should believe this."
The four lawyers had been hired by relatives to represent a detainee in an unofficial detention center, or "black jail," and were taken away by authorities last Friday at their hotel after beginning to work for their client's release.
Around a dozen activists and lawyers, including Xi, have converged on the Qixing detention center near Jiamusi in recent days to protest over the lawyers' detention.
"There are four or five police cameras trained on us as I speak," Xi said from outside the detention center.
Beijing-based rights activist Xiang Li said she was among five activists detained by local authorities late on Wednesday.
"As we were making our way back to the hotel from the detention center at about 9.00 p.m., we were intercepted by two police cars, and they took us to the Xicheng precinct under the Qixing police station and questioned us for about half an hour," Xiang said.
"Our lawyer rushed there from the hotel, and we were released after some discussion," she said.
Xiang said she was detained alongside lawyers Hu Guiyun and Liu Jinxing, and rights activists Dan Yajuan and Li Chen.
"The whole thing took about an hour," she said. "They didn't give any reason; they just took us away, and they didn't answer when we asked them why."
Hu said on Thursday that she had been questioned by police for at least two hours, during which they checked all her documents and identification in great detail.
"They are making a note of my justice ministry documents, saying they can't find proof that I'm a lawyer online," she said. "Now they are checking my lawyer's business license."
"We are at loggerheads right now, so I can't talk to you, because I'm surrounded by them," Hu said.
Lawyers seek meeting
Meanwhile, a volunteer lawyer surnamed Zhai said eight lawyers are currently in Jiamusi in a bid to help those already detained.
"People are still showing up at intervals," Zhai said. "Our lawyers have requested a meeting, but they still won't allow a meeting."
"We have the right to a meeting with our clients," he added.
Tang, Jiang, and Wang are serving 15-day administrative sentences at the Qixing Detention Center in the city of Jiansanjiang, which is administered by Jiamusi, the overseas group Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) said in a statement on Thursday.
Tang has been charged with "using a cult to disrupt social order," but it is not known if the other detained lawyers are suspected of the same offense, the group said in an e-mailed statement.
"As this situation further illustrates, Chinese human rights lawyers are facing an increasingly hazardous work environment, with authorities resorting to various kinds of reprisals against them," CHRD said.
Rights activists in China have long campaigned for the abolition of "black jails," which are often used to detain those who complain to higher levels of government about local officials or to hold anyone regarded as a troublemaker or threat to "social stability."
Those held without due legal process are at increased risk of torture and general abuse, rights groups say.
Staff in such detention facilities often insult and humiliate detainees, and have even robbed, raped, seriously injured, and killed them, according to a report last year by the Chinese rights website Weiquanwang.
In May, Sichuan authorities detained and beat high-profile rights lawyers who tried to visit an unofficial detention center, or "black jail," according to fellow lawyers who spoke with them during the attack.
And according to London-based rights group Amnesty International, thousands of Chinese people are subjected to arbitrary detention in labor camps and unofficial "black jails" each year.
Earlier this month, Beijing announced a rise in the domestic security, or "stability maintenance," budget to 205 billion yuan (U.S. $33 billion).
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.