More than 40 top Chinese rights lawyers have signed a pledge to come to the aid of other lawyers targeted by the ruling Chinese Communist Party amid a widening clampdown on its critics and those who defend them.
The pledge comes as the authorities detain dozens of rights activists, political dissidents, lawyers, and journalists ahead of the 25th anniversary of the June 4 Tiananmen Square military crackdown on the 1989 student movement.
In the open letter announcing the pledge, lawyers cited the detention of prominent rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang after he attended a May 3 seminar discussing the legacy of the bloodshed. Several others who attended were also placed under criminal detention, on suspicion of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble."
"A lot of lawyers are making arrangements now to enable another lawyer to pick up the defense of their cases, should they be targeted by the government," Shandong-based rights lawyer Xu Hongwei, who signed the letter, told RFA.
"Online statistics show that there are about eight lawyers currently under detention on charges like 'picking quarrels and stirring up trouble,' 'disturbing public order' or 'illegally gathering data on others'," Xu said.
He said Chinese rights lawyers were fast approaching a "crisis situation."
"Some of the lawyers incur the displeasure of the authorities, most probably because they are representing clients in sensitive cases," Xu said.
"[It gets to the point where] they can be charged with 'picking quarrels and stirring up trouble' just for sending out a tweet."
The agreement, which is open to any lawyer operating in mainland China, pledges to provide voluntary assistance to other lawyers and their families, should they run into trouble, according to a copy of the document seen by RFA.
As of Monday, more than 40 lawyers had signed up.
Beijing-based rights lawyer Wang Yu, who represented rights activist Cao Shunli, said she had signed the pledge because of the case of human rights attorney Gao Zhisheng, who is currently in jail after calling for the rights of members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement to be protected.
"The oppression meted out to human rights lawyers in China is very severe right now," Wang said in an interview on Monday. "The unexpected could happen at any time."
She said Pu Zhiqiang, Chang Boyang, Wang Quanping, and Tang Jitian were just a few of those targeted by the authorities in recent months.
"They lost their freedom in a very unexpected manner," Wang said, adding that none of the official legal bodies or professional organizations had stepped in to help in their cases.
"The only thing we can do in such circumstances is to band together and help each other out," she said.
Meanwhile, lawyers in the southern city of Guangzhou pointed to concerns over the health of detained rights lawyer Yang Maodong, better known by his pseudonym Guo Feixiong, after he started refusing food while in police detention.
Guo, who was detained in August on suspicion of "gathering a crowd to disrupt social order" after he petitioned the government to ratify U.N. human rights covenants, is suffering from malnutrition after his hunger strike.
"His legs are unsteady because of his malnutrition, and so I gave him some nutritional supplements and tonics," Guo's lawyer Chen Guangwu told RFA on Monday after visiting his client last week.
"I think it has something to do with his hunger strike a month ago."
Chen said the prosecution authorities had repeatedly returned Guo's case to police for further investigation.
"While there is a still a possibility that they won't pursue it at this stage, we still think it more likely that they will indict him," Chen said.
Also in Guangzhou, a group of three rights lawyers—Tang Jingling, Wang Qingying and Yuan Xinting—who were criminally detained on May 16 for "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble" have been allowed a single meeting with their lawyers.
Tang's lawyer Sui Muqing said further meetings looked less likely, however.
"I think it will prove more difficult to get meetings from now on, because the [detention center staff] have concocted a whole bunch of illegal rules, saying that the lawyers have to be debriefed at the police department after meeting [with their clients]," Sui said.
"We certainly won't be complying with these demands."
Chinese authorities have detained and questioned dozens of activists and family members of victims of the 1989 military crackdown on the Tiananmen Square student-led pro-democracy movement in the run-up to Wednesday's anniversary, rights groups say.
Some are being held under criminal detention on public order charges, while many more are being held under temporary house arrest until after the anniversary, or being taken elsewhere in China by state security police on enforced "vacations."
The 25th anniversary is seen as particularly significant for those who see the decision by late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping to send in the troops as a turning point in Chinese history, when a more conciliatory approach espoused by reform-minded then-premier Zhao Ziyang might have led the country down a more democratic path.
Reported by Xin Lin and Xin Yu for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.