At least seven human rights lawyers and associates from a prominent legal firm have been charged with “subversion,” according to their friends and families.
Zhou Shifeng, founder of the Fengrui law firm in Beijing, and some of his colleagues have been secretly detained since last summer.
Zhou’s colleague Liu Xiaoyuan told the BBC that Zhou, lawyer Wang Quanzhang and intern Li Shuyun had been arrested by police under suspicion of “state subversion.”
The BBC’s Jo Floto says “conviction is all but guaranteed” if they go to trial, where they would each face 15 years to life in jail.
Zhou rose to prominence in 2008 after representing families involved in China’s tainted baby-milk scandal which affected more than 300,000 infants. Since then, Zhou’s firm has taken on several high-profile cases.
Zhou was detained last July. A week later, state media reported he had confessed to “unspecified crimes.”
In the past, some members of the firm encouraged petitioners to congregate outside courthouses as their cases were being heard.
Last year, authorities released a statement accusing a group led by the Fengrui firm of illegally hiring protestors and swaying court decisions under the guise of “defending justice and public interests.”
Authorities have blamed the group for causing more than 40 controversial incidents.
A few months ago, police cleaned out the offices at the Fengrui law firm.
The arrests of the Fengrui firm employees reflect a wider crackdown on human rights lawyers. Since last year, more than 250 lawyers and their assistants have been detained. Most have been released, but others aren’t so lucky.
Last month, the world-renowned Chinese rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang received a suspended jail sentence for “inciting ethnic hatred” and “picking quarrels” through social media posts critical of the ruling Communist Party and other subjects.
Many analysts say Xi Jinping’s rule of law campaign is partially fueling one of the biggest crackdowns on free speech in recent history.