Four women have protested with shaved heads outside China's supreme court in Beijing over the continued detention of a human rights lawyer by authorities in the northern city of Tianjin, accusing two judges of repeatedly breaking the law.
Li Wenzu, wife of rights attorney Wang Quanzhang, who has been held incommunicado on suspicion of "subversion of state power" since July 2015, said she and three other activists had shaved their heads in a reference to a Chinese saying: "I can go without hair, but you can't go without the law."
The phrase, attributed to a Buddhist monk, puns on the similarity of the words for "hair" and "law" in Mandarin Chinese.
Li was joined in the protest by Yuan Shanshan, wife of rights lawyer Xie Yanyi, Wang Qiaoling, wife of rights lawyer Li Heping and Liu Ermin, wife of rights activist Zhai Yanmin.
The women gathered outside the Supreme People's Court in Beijing on Monday, where they presented a letter calling on the court to investigate the actions of two judges at the Tianjin No. 2 Intermediate People's Court, which has held Wang far beyond legally allowed time limits.
"The presiding judges in his case have blatantly disregarded the law all along," Li told RFA after the protest. "This has led to Wang's detention extending far beyond the administrative limits."
"A government-appointed lawyer has been allowed to meet with him, but no details of that meeting have emerged," she said. "[These two judges] are continuing to make it up as they go along."
Wang's case was sent to the Tianjin No. 2 People's Court on Feb. 14, 2017, and he should have then stood trial for subversion, but presiding judges Lin Kun and Zhou Hong had dragged their feet on the case, leaving him in pretrial detention far beyond the legal maximum, she said.
Wang Qiaoling said she had joined the protest because of her support for the rule of law.
"The law is one of the founding pillars of any country, and China is always talking about ruling by law," she said.
She said Monday's protest was the 31st attempt by Li and her fellow activists to complain about the situation.
"But we will keep going," she said.
U.S.-based legal scholar Teng Biao said the women's action was "a brilliant protest strategy."
But he added: "I still feel very sad for them, because while they're willing to shave their own heads for their husbands, there is absolutely no way of knowing whether this will have any effect."
U.S.-based Chen Guangcheng, who once acted as an unofficial lawyer to rural women faced with abuses under the draconian "one child policy," said the families of lawyers still detained following a nationwide crackdown involving more than 300 lawyers, activists and family members in July 2015 had exhausted legal channels of redress.
"Judicial channels have not worked for the July 2015 families, and this head-shaving protest should make more Chinese people aware that the country's judiciary is a big nothing," Chen said.
"It's a cosmetic arrangement that is only there to fool ordinary people."
Last month, Li was awarded Sweden's Edelstam Prize for "exceptional courage" in defending human rights, but the prize was presented to U.S.-based activist Yuan Weijing in her place, as Li was prevented from traveling to Stockholm to receive the award in person.
The award ceremony featured a large Chinese character meaning "love," as well as the iconic red buckets used by Li and fellow activists to highlight the plight of detainees.
Wang, who has been held in police detention without trial for three years, has been forced to take medication while in the custody of the Tianjin No. 1 Detention Center, his attorney Liu Weiguo said after being allowed to visit his client for the first time in July.
According to international law, family members of the disappeared are recognized as victims of enforced disappearance as well.
The Edelstam Foundation called on Beijing to free Wang and other detained rights attorneys, and to end its "harassment, threats and retaliatory actions" against Li and the couple's young child.
Reported by Jia Ao for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ng Yik-tung and Tam Siu-yin for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.