The ruling Chinese Communist Party is continuing to detain and otherwise persecute members of the country's embattled legal profession, who have expressed public opposition to its plans to remove limits to the president's terms in office, lawyers said on Friday.
In an open letter this week to China's minister for justice Zhang Jun, dozens of lawyers called on the government to end its targeting of lawyers, especially those who criticize the planned changes to the constitution, which will pave the way for indefinite rule by President Xi Jinping.
Peng Yonghe, one of those who signed the letter, said the situation has only worsened in the wake of a nationwide police operation targeting more than 300 lawyers and their families, that began in July 2015.
Peng said the plans to remove limits to the number of terms a president may serve is an indicator that things are only going to get worse in future.
"If they succeed with this constitutional amendment to do away with the two-term limits for the president and vice president ... I think we will see wave after wave of political movements that change in direction from one day to the next," Peng said.
"If we see such huge power wielded in our society, I think there is going to be very little space left indeed for lawyers," he said.
Lawyer Chen Jiahong said he had also signed the letter.
"I think if something happens and we don't speak out, then we are really no better than animals ... to be slaughtered by them," Chen said. "[The proposals are] really frightening, terrifying, and we wanted to remind the authorities of what is in the interests of the people, and to speak out in favor of democracy and the rule of law."
An official who answered the phone at the ministry of justice declined to comment.
"I can't let you have internal phone numbers, so you'll have to find some other channel," the official said.
Hunger striking lawyer
The announcement last Sunday by the party's Central Committee that it wants to remove a two-term limit from the posts of president and vice-president, paving the way for incumbent Xi Jinping to rule indefinitely, has provoked strong opposition among the country's more outspoken dissidents, including rights lawyers, and sparked a surge of renewed interest in overseas emigration.
The proposed constitutional amendments will come before the annual session of China's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC) when it convenes in Beijing on March 5, and political analysts say they will almost certainly be ratified.
Meanwhile, a human rights lawyer detained in the northeastern Chinese province of Liaoning has begun a hunger strike in protest at her prolonged pretrial detention, the rights group Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch reported on its website.
Rights lawyer Li Yuhan, 60, was formally arrested last November, 37 days after she "disappeared" from her home in the provincial capital Shenyang formal arrest, and began refusing food on Feb. 24, the report said.
Her lawyer Ma Wei declined to comment on the report when contacted by RFA. "You should understand why," he said, before hanging up the phone.
Li went missing on Oct. 9, and is "at risk of torture and other ill-treatment" in the police-run No. 1 Detention Center in the northeastern city of Shenyang, London-based Amnesty International has said.
Reported by Wong Lok-to for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.