After a mass roundup of hundreds of human rights attorneys and employees at a human rights law firm, reports suggest at least six individuals are unaccounted for, believed to have been taken into Chinese police custody for interrogation and, some fear, torture.
Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal reports, Chinese state media reported that a number of employees at the Fengrui law firm in Beijing had “confessed” to vague instances of criminal acts “ranging from hyping up legal cases to spreading smears against China’s legal system.” Chinese state media outlets have referred to the law firm’s employees and related human rights activists as a “criminal gang.”
The director of Fengrui, Zhou Shifeng, was quoted in state news outlet Xinhua as claiming his law firm “has indeed broken the law, this is without a doubt.” He allegedly admitted to “specific instances of illegality and criminality,” with the publication not stating what those specific instances were. Another activist arrested claimed they had organized protests against the law. He was arrested while on the way to visit a client that he had apparently saved from conviction.
These confessions come from the people accounted for in the arrests, which total at least 238 so far. At least six others remain simply “missing,” and the Chinese government has not said they are in custody. The Human Rights Lawyer Concern Group in Hong Kong tells The Guardian that those missing are mostly not lawyers, but legal assistants, a trainee lawyer, and the leader of a Christian group. They have been missing, the newspaper notes, since July 10.
The same day the Christian group leader was last seen, the Chinese government cracked down on Zhejiang’s Christian Council, a previously legal religious group. The group was forced to take down crosses displayed on their churches, to “stop immediately such ridiculous acts that split the party and the people.”
At least one of those detained—Wang Yu, an attorney at Fengrui that state media had referred to previously as a “bogus lawyer”—sent her friends a message warning that someone was trying to break into her home hours before disappearing.
“The scope is unprecedented, not only in terms of who has been taken away, detained [or] disappeared but also in terms of the huge numbers of lawyers who have been taken in for questionings, warnings and intimidation,” Eva Pils, a China expert from King’s College London, told The Guardian. Others agreed. “The whole tone of the state-media reports presents the case against the alleged ‘criminal gang’ as established fact, rather than allowing a fair and impartial court process to decide this… The confessions that they’ve obtained seem like they are fitting the government’s preapproved narrative,” William Nee, a researcher at Amnesty International, told the Wall Street Journal.
A petition circulating in Hong Kong is calling for an investigation into the Chinese government’s actions against these human rights lawyers and their staff. Elsewhere in China, however, state media is making clear that they have no regard for these human rights activists, who often expose the unjust activities of the communist state against those seeking the respect of fundamental human rights.
“This week’s arrest of lawyers suspected of breaching laws for personal profits in China is nothing more than a legitimate law enforcement action, and should not be interpreted as a human rights issue,” a column in Xinhua, a state newspaper, declared last week. “By hastily equating ‘lawyers’ with ‘justice’ and ‘Chinese police’ with ‘oppression,’ Western critics trampled on basic principle of law, that every one is equal.”