UPDATED at 04:15 P.M. EDT on 2018-07-12
Authorities in Beijing are investigating a law firm linked to a top human rights attorney who recently defended jailed democracy activist Qin Yongmin, who was jailed earlier this week for subversion.
The Ruiqi law firm, founded by rights lawyer Lin Qilei, is under investigation by judicial officials, according to a directive sent to the firm by Beijing's Chaoyang district judicial affairs bureau.
The notice accuses the firm of a number of irregularities in the running of its business, including a "chaotic financial records" and for failing to stick to the rules when taking on and managing cases.
The firm, whose registered address is listed as the Beijing apartment previously occupied by rights lawyers Wang Yu and her husband Bao Longjun before their detention in July 2015, had also "failed to sign employment contracts" with the two lawyers working with Lin, the directive said.
The notice was sent out as Lin's client Qin was at his sentencing hearing at the Wuhan Intermediate People's Court on Wednesday. Lin was notably absent from the proceedings, prompting speculation that he may have run afoul of the authorities.
Repeated calls to Lin's cell phone on Thursday resulted either in a busy signal or a message saying his phone was turned off.
Guangxi-based rights lawyer Chen Jiahong said Lin had received a phone call from local judicial affairs officials just before the hearing, which likely had to do with his failure to attend the hearing.
"Lin Qilei took two phone calls: from the Beijing municipal justice department and the Chaoyang district judicial affairs bureau, which were rather threatening in nature," Chen said. "They were demanding that he attend court to pick up a copy of the judgment, but lawyers don't receive such orders from administrative officials."
"We go only if the court informs us that we should."
Lawyers lose faith
Chen said Chinese lawyers have lost any faith in the country's judicial system, following years of persecution in the wake of a wave of arrests and surveillance beginning in July 2015.
"The judicial system is a hostile environment for us lawyers now: there is no room for us," he said. "A lawyer who doesn't believe in the rule of law is no lawyer at all."
He said Lin's involvement in Qin Yongmin's case wasn't the only factor behind the investigation.
"Lin Qilei has been defending human rights cases for many years now, and in particular, he set up a WeChat group for human rights lawyers a few years back ... where he would post comments on matters of national importance and on legal cases," Chen said.
Kit Chan, executive director of the Hong Kong-based Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, said he felt that Lin's failure to attend could be a form of protest.
"His action is simply indicative of a huge problem with the judicial system [in China]," Chan said. "There is no point in having lawyers at sentencing hearings nowadays."
"The authorities use various methods to oppress clients, including constantly dragging out the trial date. Lin Qilei's action was a form of protest," he said.
Decades in jail
Authorities in the central Chinese province of Hubei on Wednesday handed down a 13-year jail term to veteran pro-democracy campaigner and rights activist Qin Yongmin after finding him guilty of subversion.
Qin, 65, was sentenced to 13 years' imprisonment by the Wuhan Intermediate People's Court, which convicted him of "incitement to subvert state power." He had served nearly 26 years in jail before the court's decision on Wednesday.
A contemporary of exiled dissident Wei Jingsheng, Qin was sentenced to eight years in prison for "counterrevolutionary propaganda and subversion" in the wake of China's Democracy Wall movement in 1981.
He served a further two years' "re-education through labor" in 1993 after he penned a controversial document titled the "Peace Charter."
Qin then served a 12-year jail term for subversion after he helped found the China Democracy Party in 1998 in spite of a ban on opposition political parties.
The court said Wednesday that it would apply the three years Qin had spent in detention since 2015 towards his 13-year sentence.
Reported by Gao Feng for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Lok-to for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.