Three top Chinese rights lawyers are at "grave risk of torture" amid a massive police operation targeting the country's embattled legal profession, an international rights group said on Thursday.
Some 200 lawyers, paralegals, and rights activists have been targeted by China's state security police since July 10, with 30 people still missing or in police custody by Thursday afternoon, rights groups said.
The Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group (CHRLCG) said in a statement on its website: "205 lawyers/law firm staff/human right activists have been detained/arrested/incommunicado/summoned/restricted freedom temporarily."
London-based Amnesty International meanwhile said it had counted 194 lawyers and related activists targeted, with 30 remaining behind bars or under house arrest by Thursday afternoon.
It said lawyers Xie Yang, Sui Muqing, and activist Gou Hongguo are being held on suspicion of "incitement to subvert state power," a state security charge that carries a maximum penalty of 15 years' imprisonment in "serious cases."
"All three men are at grave risk of torture and other ill-treatment," the group said in a statement on its website.
Xie, Sui, and Gou have been placed under "residential surveillance," which involves placing a heavy police guard over a detainee, either at their home or at an undisclosed location like a holiday resort or a private house.
China's laws on state security crimes state that police can hold suspects in secret for up to six months without needing to inform their families or ensure their access to lawyers.
Amnesty International China researcher William Nee called on police to disclose the whereabouts of the detainees, and to allow them visits from lawyers and family members.
Nee said the scale and severity of the current crackdown by the ruling Chinese Communist Party is unprecedented.
"The authorities appear intent on spreading fear among those willing to stand up for human rights," Nee said.
"The use of state security charges is chilling, and only underlines the ferocity of the attack against rights lawyers," he said.
It is possible that many of those who remain in detention, as well as those who have been summoned and questioned, could face similar state security charges, according to Amnesty.
Wang Xiaoli, a lawyer based in the eastern province of Jiangxi, said she had been questioned and warned by police after she signed an open letter protesting the crackdown.
"They are going after all the people who signed the letter of support, and have taken statements while 'drinking tea' with them to tell them not to openly support the lawyers any more," Wang said.
She said that ordinary Chinese people are next in the firing line, however.
"If they have detained all the lawyers, then who is going to help regular citizens when they target them?" she said.
'A hostile force'
U.S.-based legal scholar Teng Biao said that rights lawyers are seen by the administration of President Xi Jinping as a hostile force that must be dealt with.
"This is the worst purge the civil rights movement has seen since 2003," Teng told RFA on Thursday.
"It's far, far worse than the crackdown that followed the [Arab Spring] in 2011."
"The Chinese Communist Party cares less and less what the international community thinks, believing that they are now an economic superpower, and that they already have the upper hand," Teng said.
He said the crackdown is unlikely to abate any time soon.
"It looks as if they have no plans to stop the persecution of rights lawyers; rather they are detaining and warning an increasing number of people," he said.
Official media reports have dismissed international criticism of the crackdown on rights lawyers, saying the suspects were part of a criminal operation aimed at undermining social stability.
The crackdown, according to party newspaper the People’s Daily, is part of a campaign to "strike hard against illegal lawyers according to the law."
Many lawyers told RFA they were summoned for questioning by police and warned not to publicize details of 'sensitive' rights cases online or to media organizations.
Meanwhile, dozens remain in detention, including Wang Yu, Zhou Shifeng, and Huang Liqun from Beijing's Fengrui public interest law firm, which defended jailed Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti.
According to state news agency Xinhua, Fengrui is at the center of a "criminal gang" that sought to incite social unrest and exaggerate the significance of popular protest in recent years.
"The authorities are demonstrating their contempt for the rule of law and using every tactic possible to try and build a case against the [Fengrui law firm]," Nee said.
"Presumption of innocence has been thrown out the window."
Warnings from police
Lawyers have turned down requests for interviews in recent days, citing police threats of prison sentences or warnings that their closest family members could lose access to jobs or educational opportunity.
Rights lawyer Li Xiangyang declined to comment on his detention when contacted by RFA on Wednesday.
"I can't give interviews," Li said. "I have already promised the police, who say they will sentence me to jail if I speak to any media organizations whatsoever."
"I also promised not to write anything on overseas websites, or to show [public] concern for Wang Yu or the other lawyers," he said.
Shenzhen attorney Pang Kun said many lawyers are still feeling the pressure, even if they aren't actually under current detention.
"A lot of people don't dare to open their mouths right now," Pang said. "There is a huge amount of pressure on at the moment."
"They will use all sorts of methods, including criminal detention, to ensure that people don't speak out."
Beijing-based lawyer Cheng Hai said he doesn't understand what is so threatening to the government about lawyers.
"What are they so worried about? The stronger the rule of law, the more secure the regime," Cheng said.
"The lawyers are trying courageously to stand up for their own rights and interests," he said. "If they can't stand up for their own, how can they protect other people's?"
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.