Authorities in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan are preparing to try an octogenarian writer on public order charges and for "running an illegal business" after he criticized a former senior official in the ruling Chinese Communist Party, his lawyer said on Monday.
Huang Zerong, 81, widely known by his pen name Tie Liu, was detained by police at his Beijing home in September on suspicion of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble."
He was later also charged with "running an illegal business" and transferred to police detention in Sichuan's provincial capital, Chengdu, his defense lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan told RFA.
He said the authorities now look set to proceed with his trial. "The case was transferred to the state prosecutor's office on Friday," Liu said. "I hadn't been expecting this."
Tie's wife Ren Hengfang said she had been handed a travel ban following her husband's formal arrest in October.
"They informed me in mid-October that I wasn't allowed to leave the country," Ren said. "We, his family, are doing whatever we can, but all we can do is wait."
"How could we not be worried? He is so old," she said. "But what's the use of worrying; he can't see us and we can't see him."
Ren said she had planned to take the couple's two-year-old granddaughter to her mother in the United States, but has now been unable to do so.
Meanwhile, Liu said the case should never have been transferred to Chengdu in the first place.
"It should always have been processed in Beijing, because he was a long-term resident in Beijing," Liu said, adding: "[He] had always expected to be released on bail."
He said previous attempts to start a prosecution had been delayed after prosecutors told police there wasn't enough evidence against Tie Liu.
"I think it is likely that they will now indict him," he said.
Rights activists say Tie's arrest could be linked to an article he wrote slamming tight controls on press freedom imposed by the Communist Party's former propaganda czar Liu Yunshan, who retired from the post in 2012 after 10 years in office.
According to the article, "Liu Yunshan is a person of the lowest order ... and the driving force behind the corrupt elite in charge of China's media."
"He is more evil than [former propaganda chief] Deng Liqun and more left-wing than [former Xinhua news agency chief] Hu Qiaomu," wrote Tie, who served a total of 23 years in prison during the "anti-rightist" political campaigns during the Mao era.
He was eventually rehabilitated with the advent of Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms in 1980.
Tie then founded Mark of the Past magazine, focusing on the injustices of the "anti-rightist" campaigns, which was shuttered by the government in 2011.
He also established a fund in 2010 to help writers and journalists victimized by the authorities.
A friend of Tie's who gave only his surname Huang said the evidence for the charges against his friend is still unclear.
"If he is being charged because of Mark of the Past, then I think that's wrong," Huang said. "[That magazine] was entirely legal."
He said the entire family has relocated to Sichuan to be near Tie.
"None of them is left in Beijing now," Huang said.
China led the world in imprisoning journalists in 2014, with a total of 29 behind bars, according to Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which said the authorities are also holding 73 netizens out of a global total that also came to 178.
However, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) put the figure at 44 jailed journalists in its 2014 annual report.
It said restrictions on state media have tightened significantly since President Xi Jinping took power in November 2012.
"Under Xi, it has been made clear that the role of the media is to support the party's unilateral rule, and nothing less," the group said in a statement issued with its annual report this month.
"It is pretty much a return to the authoritarian approach under Mao that saw the media as being the party's mouthpiece, not the watchdog role that emerged under Deng Xiaoping during the economic liberalization of the 1980s," CPJ said.
It cited a communique known as "Document 9," which calls for ever more vigilance from China's complex system of blocks, filters, and human censors known collectively as the Great Firewall.
"Unwavering adherence to the principle of the party's control of media" is one of Document 9's most salient and chilling points, the statement said.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.