Human rights lawyers on the mainland fear they may be facing increased persecution and violence after four of their profession were detained - and at least one beaten - when they tried to help members of the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong last month.
Supporters of the lawyers, including other members of the legal profession, were also manhandled and detained on Saturday after they held a rally outside a detention centre in Heilongjiang province in support of the men, further stoking fears that rights activists face greater hostility from the police and the authorities on the mainland.
The four lawyers were detained on March 21 by police in Jiansanjiang after they asked after the fate of several members of Falun Gong held at a "legal education centre" - a euphemism for an illegal detention centre, or "black jail".
One of the lawyers, Zhang Junjie , said in a posting online that he was slapped, beaten and kicked during interrogation, fracturing three of his ribs.
He was then put in administrative detention for five days for "gambling" and was released on Thursday. The three other lawyers, Jiang Tianyong , Tang Jitian and Wang Cheng , were placed on 15 days administrative detention. Jiang and Tang were accused of "using cult activities to endanger society". The accusations made against Wang are unclear.
Fellow lawyers fear the three are likely to have been beaten and abused while in detention.
About 30 people staged a rally outside the Qixing detention centre where the three lawyers are held. They were hauled away by the police from outside the centre and their hotel on Saturday, said lawyer Fu Yonggang, who was among them. Fu said police put black hoods over their heads and used parcel tape to bind their hands behind their backs.
The three lawyers taking part in the rally, Fu, Wang Quanzhang and Wang Shengsheng, plus several activists were released over the weekend, but 11 people remained in custody as of yesterday, Fu said.
Wang Quanzhang told the South China Morning Post yesterday that police struck him on the back of his head when he refused to sign a statement to promise to stop protesting and defending Falun Gong members. A staff member at the Jiansanjiang Public Security Bureau said he had no knowledge of the three detained lawyers or Saturday's detention of their supporters.
Human rights lawyers said the incidents were "a landmark case" of abuse against lawyers and activists and they fear more similar cases will happen as long as police continue to enjoy the unchecked power to arbitrarily detain perceived "trouble-makers". "People can be detained any time on any charge, their personal freedom cannot be safeguarded," said lawyer Liang Xiaojun .
Mainland police can detain people for up to 15 days on administrative detention and up to 37 days in criminal detention without court approval.
Legal scholar Wang Jianxun said the lawyers had been deprived of the legal right to visit their clients, and were also beaten and detained themselves.
The case also questions the legality of "legal education centres" - the many illegal detention centres across the mainland designed to arbitrarily lock up Falun Gong, petitioners and some Christians and religious cult members, lawyer Li Fangping said. Lawyer Liu Weiguo said he was particularly concerned about the extreme violence against lawyers in custody in this case.
“This state of lawlessness makes me worry about our country's future,” said Liu.