Riot police in the southern Chinese island province of Hainan on Tuesday raided the hotel rooms of four rights lawyers who arrived to defend a dissident writer and escorted them back to the provincial capital.
The Guangzhou-based legal team for writer Zheng Qiuwu and his wife arrived in Hainan's Wenchang city late on Monday, planning to meet with the couple, who are being criminally detained on suspicion of “illegal business activities,” the lawyers said.
Riot police raided the hotel rooms occupied by Wu Kuiming, Sui Muqing, Liu Zhengqing, and Ge Yongxi in the early hours of Tuesday morning, telling the lawyers, "you are not welcome by the people of Hainan."
"At around 2:00 a.m. this morning, we hurried to Wenchang and booked into a local hotel, but the police came to the door within five minutes of our arrival and told us we couldn't stay there, giving some excuse about our ID cards," Sui said in an interview on Tuesday.
"Later on, they dispensed with the excuse, and just told us straight out we had to leave," he said.
"This is the first time in my life I ever saw riot police used against lawyers."
"They restricted our movements after they came into the room, and there were some scuffles," Sui added.
He said police had found a taxi for the lawyers and insisted they return to the provincial capital Haikou in the middle of the night.
"They definitely intend to give Zheng Qiuwu a lawyer of their choosing," Sui said. "That way it will be easy for them to go along with whatever the court decides, because most officially appointed lawyers will do what the authorities tell them."
"We definitely would not, which would have an adverse effect on their trial."
Zheng was detained by authorities in the eastern province of Zhejiang on June 4 and forced to return to his hometown in Wenchang.
Wang Yan, the head of the investigation team at the Wenchang municipal police department, declined to comment on the case.
"Where are you calling from?" Wang said after answering his cell phone. He hung up saying "You have the wrong number," after the RFA reporter stated their identity.
Zheng's wife, who has so far been unnamed by rights groups following the couple's case, was detained on May 31 in Hainan, the China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) group said.
"Zheng may have been detained for evading police surveillance when he went to Zhejiang, where he had reportedly gone to look for work," CHRD said in a statement on its website.
The couple is being held at the Wenchang city detention center, and their grown children have refused to sign their detention notices.
Zheng is a veteran pro-democracy activist who was sentenced to 14 years' imprisonment in 1983 for "incitement to subvert state power" after he organized a political group called the Democratic Alliance of China.
Last week, authorities in the northeastern province of Liaoning barred a team of defense attorneys from attending the trial of 13 members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement.
Out of more than 204,000 lawyers in China, only a few hundred risk taking on cases that deal with human rights, according to Amnesty International.
China has launched a clampdown in recent years on its embattled legal profession, with many civil rights law firms struggling to renew their licenses.
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, and by Fung Yat-yiu for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.