Several Beijing-based human rights defence lawyers have been fired by their law firms for campaigning for direct elections of officials in the Beijing Lawyers Association, according to an NGO.
At least five human rights lawyers, including prominent activists Cheng Hai and Li Subin, were asked to quit the Beijing Yitong Law Firm last week, Human Rights in China (HRIC) said on Friday.
According to Mr Li, officials from the Haidian District Bureau of Justice visited the firm on October 30 to take photographs and question staff about the firm's cases.
The director of the firm, which has defended many human rights cases, had been pressured by the authorities to drop some of its cases, HRIC said.
Mr Cheng said the firm asked him by phone to quit while he was on a business trip.
'I was shocked,' he told the Sunday Morning Post.
'In order to keep the firm in business, five lawyers, including me, had to leave voluntarily or be dismissed.
'I'm sure the firm was forced to make the decision since it had been under great pressure from the authorities for the past two months.'
They are among 35 Beijing lawyers who signed an online letter in August calling for 'a true democratic election to promote the democracy of the city's Municipal Lawyers Association'.
The lawyers questioned the legitimacy of the three-decade-old association and demanded it allow independent candidates to run in the election at the end of the year.
The number of lawyers in support has grown to 82.
The state-controlled Beijing Lawyers Association claimed the petition was an illegal attempt to 'annihilate the country's lawyer management system, judicial system and even the political system'.
Mr Cheng said the lawyers would not give up on their push for direct elections.
'We all knew we would face great obstacles and pressure,' he said.
'But our goal is clear - to mobilise Beijing's lawyers to exercise their legal rights and to prevent the association from being controlled and turned into a special interest group.
'The Lawyer's Law clearly states that the bar association is an autonomous social organisation and its representatives are chosen by election and, of course, it must submit to the supervision of its members.
'I'm very confident that more and more lawyers will be brave enough to stand up to fight for their legal rights.'