Authorities in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan on Monday 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.
Beijing-based rights lawyer Li Heping said he had lost touch with a number of prominent public interest lawyers, including Tang Jitian and Jiang Tianyong, during a hurried phone call after they tried to visit the detention center in Sichuan's Ziyang city on Monday.
"[Rights lawyer] Tang Tianhao called me to say that a few of the lawyers went to a black jail in Ziyang where several hundred people are being held illegally, to check up on the illegal detention of citizens," Li told RFA's Mandarin Service on Monday.
"They called me just before they set off, in case something happened to them, which it did."
"They have been detained, and the security guards from the black jail were beating them up as I was on the phone to them; I have a recording," Li said.
He said he had also lost touch with Liang Xiaojun and Lin Qilei, among others.
Calls to Jiang's and Tang Jitian's cellphones resulted in a "switched off" message.
Municipal legal education center
A brief and interrupted phone conversation with Tang Tianhao recorded earlier Monday by Li said the lawyers were being held in the Ziyang municipal legal education center.
"In the Ziyang Municipal Legal Education Center, a black jail," Tang Tianhao said. "They are attacking the lawyers now, Tang Jitian, and Jiang Tianyong and me...."
The attacks were carried out by security guards employed at the center, which was set up as a detention center for followers of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, according to online reports.
But calls to the center went unanswered during office hours on Monday.
Li Heping initially reported the incident on the popular Twitter-like microblogging service Sina Weibo, while Sichuan-based rights lawyer Ran Tong tweeted that he would report the incident to the Ziyang municipal police department.
The incident comes just days after the beating of Shandong rights lawyer Liu Jinbin, who had been hired to represent rights activist Wei Zhongping, who is being held under criminal detention in the eastern province of Jiangxi after calling on officials to declare their assets.
Beijing rights lawyer Li Fangping said it was becoming more and more commonplace for lawyers to be physically attacked by the authorities while trying to represent clients.
"This isn't a one-off occurrence," Li said. "Local governments have really taken their stability maintenance policies to extremes, to the point where it's the plainclothes police who are doing the beating."
He said the nationwide obsession with "stability maintenance" had led to a government that behaved like the mafia or a criminal gang.
"It is very worrying because of the damage this will do to the rule of law," Li said. "At the same time, the reaction among the legal profession is getting stronger and stronger...it's a form of awakening for them."
In 2011, Beijing instituted a clampdown on its embattled legal profession, with many civil rights law firms struggling to renew their licenses.
China frequently withholds the licenses of lawyers who represent "sensitive" and disadvantaged groups, such as those who pursue complaints against official wrongdoing.
Rights groups say there is little purpose to the annual lawyer licensing scheme, besides the exertion of state control over the legal profession.
New rules introduced in the past two years ban lawyers from defending certain clients and leave them vulnerable to being charged themselves with subversion if they defend sensitive cases.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.