Concerns are growing for the safety of dozens of human rights lawyers and associates locked up in an unknown location by the Chinese authorities in a crackdown that started in July 2015, as the international community marks a day of concern for the victims of enforced disappearances.
During a nationwide operation targeting rights lawyers, activists, their families and employees, at least 26 of the more than 300 detained, questioned or otherwise affected were subject to enforced disappearance, the Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network said in a statement.
"Several are believed to be under close watch by police and essentially still in a state of enforced disappearance," the group said in a statement to mark the United Nations' International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearance.
Some of those who remain incommunicado at an unknown location have even been officially released, including rights attorneys Wang Yu and Bao Longjun, Zhang Kai and legal assistant Zhao Wei.
Zhao Wei's own lawyer Ren Quanniu was also detained, incommunicado, after speaking out about the authorities refusal to allow him to meet with her.
Zhao's husband You Minglei said on Tuesday that he still has no news of her whereabouts since her "release" last month.
"We've heard nothing," You said, adding that a tweet Zhao sent about how good it felt to breathe "free air" was likely manufactured by the authorities.
"She was probably forced to send it," he said.
Fellow rights lawyer Wu Kuiming said most of the lawyers representing their colleagues have been prevented from meeting with them since the crackdown began.
"That also goes for my representation of Ren Quanniu," he said. "I'm his lawyer, and yet I have no way of getting in touch with him."
"Also, not a single one of Wang Yu's close friends has managed to meet with her or even get in contact with her [since she was released on bail]," he said.
Repeated calls to Wang Yu's cell phone resulted in a switched-off message on Tuesday.
Thirteen still incommunicado
Wu said the ruling Chinese Communist Party is unlikely to pay much attention to international calls for the release of the "disappeared" and detained lawyers, however.
According to CHRD, 13 individuals from the “709” crackdown are still being held incommunicado.
Activists Xing Qingxian and Tang Zhishun went missing in Myanmar last October and were secretly held in China for seven months before authorities informed their families that the pair had been arrested.
They had been trying to help Wang Yu and Bao Longjun's teenage son Bao Mengmeng flee the country to attend school, after his passport was confiscated during his parents' detention.
Enforced or involuntary disappearance constitutes a crime against humanity under international treaties.
Rights groups say that victims of enforced disappearance are at high risk of torture and other kinds of ill-treatment.
"The Xi Jinping regime has taken the abhorrent practice of enforced disappearance to a new level, attempting to justify it on the basis of flawed domestic law," CHRD said.
Under Article 73 of China's Criminal Procedure Law, police can hold an individual for up to six months in a secret location with no access to their family or lawyer if they are suspected of crimes involving state security, which are often vaguely defined.
China’s systemic problem with torture in detention—and the over reliance on admittance of criminal wrongdoing to convict detainees—raises concerns that some individuals held in secret are mistreated in order to coerce confessions, CHRD said.
In a pattern that is becomingly increasingly common in political detentions, Wang Yu gave an "interview" to Beijing-backed media after being granted "bail," saying she regretted her actions, and blaming her boss at Fengrui, Zhou Shifeng.
Activists said at the time that her remarks are likely to have been scripted by state security police.
Zhang Kai's lawyer, Tan Chenshou, said his client had been forced into making comments critical of other rights lawyers detained in the crackdown, including Beijing Fengrui law firm partners and employees.
"He was under duress and in illegal detention," Tan told RFA on Tuesday. "He had been bullied and cruelly treated."
"He basically had no choice, and so he said what they forced him to say, but he doesn't hold those opinions," he said.
He said Zhang had issued a statement retracting his comments after critical comments were made about him online. "I think that's totally understandable," Tan said.
Yuan Shanshan, wife of detained rights lawyer Xie Yanyi said she and her family are increasingly concerned for his safety.
"This is unacceptable for them to do this; they are knowingly breaking the law, and they are doing it in a self-righteous way," Yuan said.
"It seems that there are no limits for them when it comes to what they think is legal."
Breaking international law
Maya Wang, China researcher at the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), said enforced disappearances are getting more and more common in today's China.
"The Chinese government has often resorted to such methods as temporary disappearances in recent years, for example, locking petitioners up in unofficial jails, or 're-education centers'," Wang told RFA.
"They also use long-term disappearances, for example in the cases of some human rights lawyers who have been held since July 2015 in locations unknown to their families or lawyers," she said.
"But these practices are in breach of international law, whether they are for short or long periods," Wang added.
"We call on the Chinese government to take steps to put an immediate end to them."
Reported by Wong Lok-to for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.