Dozens of Chinese lawyers including some of the country’s more prominent human rights defenders have been detained or questioned over the past few days in an unusual co-ordinated nationwide sweep.
The total number of people who have been either summoned, arrested, questioned or detained has now reached 77 across 15 provinces, according to China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group.
Meanwhile, a report at the weekend in People’s Daily, the Communist party media mouthpiece, denounced a law firm that specialises in rights cases as a “major criminal organisation” that “planned creating an uproar in more than 40 sensitive cases and that seriously disturbed social order”.
At least five lawyers from the firm, Beijing Fengrui, have been “criminally detained”, it said.
One human rights lawyer, Sui Muqing, has been charged with “inciting subversion of state power” and placed under house arrest, according to a document from the Guangzhou Public Security Bureau shown to the Financial Times.
The crackdown on lawyers follows passage of China’s controversial national security law which critics say strengthens the authority of the security apparatus against anyone who tries to limit its power.
Pressure on prominent social media personalities, nongovernment organisations, media groups and members of ethnic minorities has intensified as President Xi Jinping consolidates his power. Mr Xi has also presided over an anti-corruption purge that has seen hundreds of thousands of officials detained, investigated or otherwise punished.
The arrest of lawyers follows campaigns in state media over the past few months aiming to discredit human rights lawyers, using smears on their personal lives and claims that they paid demonstrators to drum up public support for controversial cases.
The detention and even abuse of lawyers related to an individual case is common in China, and friends, family and colleagues of activists are often summoned to “drink tea” with the security forces — a type of informal but required meeting — during periods where they might otherwise wish to protest.
But the latest detentions are more widespread and co-ordinated than in the past.
“All these lawyers were active on social media,” said William Nee, China researcher for Amnesty International, the human rights group. “It’s clear the government is pretty concerned about use of social media and public mobilisation in support of human rights cases.”
All of the lawyers and activists involved have taken on cases involving free speech, human rights or abuse of state power. Some had taken on religious cases, including the demolition of Christian house churches or defending followers of the banned Falun Gong sect.
The apparent abduction of one Fengrui lawyer, Wang Yu, from her house around dawn on Friday prompted about 100 lawyers from across China to sign a petition in support.
When contacted by the FT over the weekend, a lawyer from the firm said: “I don’t know anything! I don’t know anything at all!” before hanging up. Other lawyers who signed the petition did not answer their phones.
Some lawyers who were questioned and released were told not to interfere in Ms Wang’s case, according to Hong Kong-based CHRLCG.
“If you look at the proportion of energy and effort made, it doesn’t look like a proportionate manoeuvre,” said Kit Chan, executive director of CHRLCG. “If they know these lawyers they should know that it’s not easy to threaten them.”
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