Authorities in the southwestern Chinese region of Guangxi have raided a legal consultation company started by disbarred human rights lawyers and ordered it closed, RFA has learned.
Dozens of police officers on Tuesday raided the China Lawyers' Club set up last September by Tan Yongpei, a former rights attorney stripped of his license by the local justice bureau for taking on too many "sensitive" human rights cases.
"There were more than 30 police officers, as well as officials from the civil affairs and justice bureaus, so 40-50 people in total," Tan told RFA. "They told us we couldn't hang up our sign, and that we are an illegal organization of banned lawyers."
If the club continued to operate, members were warned that further action would be taken.
Police then went around the premises taking photos and left, after which Tan said he rehung the sign.
The club had initially lodged an application with the bureau of civil affairs to register as an organization, but was rejected, Tan said.
"They are afraid that Chinese lawyers may later form a political opposition, maybe a political party," he said.
Tan said he plans to lodge an official complaint with the civil affairs department and to apply once more to have the club's registration approved.
He said he believes the order for the ban came from the police department.
"Their aim was to frighten and threaten us ... they went around filming and taking photos in every corner," Tan said. "When I wouldn't give them the sign, they ripped it down."
"This is an office environment. We have a right to display any sign we want to," he said.
China Lawyer's Club
A nationwide police operation under the administration of President Xi Jinping has targeted more than 300 lawyers, law firms, and related activists for questioning, detention, imprisonment, debarring and travel bans since it launched in July 2015.
The China Lawyers' Club was set up in Guangxi's regional capital, Nanning, by a group of former rights attorneys who lost their "business license" at the hands of local justice departments, and may no longer represent clients in court.
Formally established on Sept. 29, 2018, the club's aim is to find employment and income for dozens of experienced litigators who no longer have an income in the wake of the crackdown.
The club is a legal services company, and signs lawyers in a manner similar to the way sports teams sign big stars. Under current regulations, Chinese lawyers need a business license to represent clients, but not to offer legal consultancy on petitions and complaints.
Club executive secretary Chen Keyun agreed that the organization appears to have become a political target of the government.
"They have already designated it a an illegal organization, so if we continue our public activities under the club's name ... their next step may be ... arresting people," Chen said.
An official who answered the phone at the civil affairs bureau of Nanning's Xixiangtang district government declined to comment when contacted by RFA on Wednesday.
"Sorry, we haven't heard about this," the official said.
China last month further stepped up pressure on its embattled legal profession, requiring more than 100,000 lawyers to take a new national oath to "root out instability," particularly in ethnic minority areas of the country.
Justice minister Fu Zhenghua attended a collective lawyers' oath-taking ceremony in Hohhot, the regional capital of Inner Mongolia, on Sunday, the same day as more than 100,000 lawyers took the same oath in hundreds of Chinese cities, the ministry of justice said at the time.
The lawyers swore allegiance to the People's Republic of China, and to "strive to build a socialist country ruled by law," it said.
The oath ceremonies were aimed at "strengthening lawyers' ideological and political education," the ministry said.
But under newly revised rules on oath-taking, lawyers who failed to take the oath could face professional sanctions.
Reported by Wong Lok-to for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.