Chinese human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang talks to media in Beijing in this July 20, 2012 picture.

(New York) – The Chinese judicial system’s failure to release three high-profile key activists detained in recent months – public intellectual Guo Yushan, lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, and legal activist Guo Feixiong – reflects progressively harsher suppression of civil society, Human Rights Watch said today.

There is no publicly available credible evidence of illegal behavior in any of their cases, yet all three are likely to advance in the coming weeks as judicial personnel handle these cases with instructions from Communist Party authorities.

“Under Xi Jinping’s leadership, the crackdown on dissent has netted some of China’s most respected critics known for their innovative activism developing the rule of law,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “Prosecuting and imprisoning these well-established public figures indicates near-zero tolerance for independent activism.”

Over the past decade, the three have been at the forefront of China’s human rights movement, pushing officials for greater adherence to the law and devising new methods to advance their cause:

  • Guo Yushan, 38, founded two influential organizations in Beijing: the legal aid NGO Gongmeng in 2004, and a public policy think tank, the Transition Institute, in 2007. Both organizations were meeting places for like-minded intellectuals, activists, and lawyers, and centers for advocacy on major human rights issues that captured public attention. Beijing police took Guo into custody on October 9, 2014, for “creating a disturbance,” and arrested him on suspicion of “operating an illegal business” on January 3, 2015. The police have yet to transfer Guo’s case to the procuratorate for prosecution;
  • Pu Zhiqiang, 50, forged a unique path as a lawyer defending many sensitive and prominent free speech cases, including that of Ai Weiwei; he was also an influential voice in public policy as a leading advocate for the 2013 abolition of one arbitrary detention system. On May 4, 2014, he was taken into custody after attending a small private seminar in Beijing on the Tiananmen Massacre and charged with “creating a disturbance.” When he was formally arrested on June 13, police added a second charge of “illegally obtaining citizens’ personal information.” When the police sent Pu’s case to the procuratorate in November, it recommended that Pu be prosecuted on two additional, more serious crimes of “inciting splittism” and “inciting ethnic hatred.” According to his lawyer, the police’s evidence for the crimes is based on about 30 microblogs he published on sina weibo and on some business investigations he conducted, which were commissioned by some of China’s most respected media outlets. Pu has yet to be prosecuted; and
  • Guo Feixiong, 48, is best known for his work in 2005 aiding villagers in Taishi, Guangdong province, as they sought to remove the allegedly corrupt village leader from office. Guo put together a campaign involving activists, intellectuals, and lawyers, and his organizing methods shaped the ongoing “rights defense” movement in China. Guo, whose real name is Yang Maodong, was taken into custody on August 8, 2013, and tried for “gathering crowds to disturb social order” in late November 2014, together with fellow Guangzhou activist Sun Desheng. Their crimes, according to the indictment, included holding up placards and giving speeches at a demonstration against censorship of prominent Guangzhou publication Southern Weekly in January 2013, as well as uploading photos of protests against censorship in other cities. The court has yet to announce the verdict.

Officials had to an extent tolerated Guo’s and Pu’s work prior to their detention. Both pushed boundaries and aided fellow activists, including blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng, without being jailed – an ever present risk for rights activists. Guo’s Transition Institute operated for nearly eight years, though with periodic official harassment; Pu had been frequently featured and quoted in official publications. Guo Feixiong, however, was jailed between 2006 and 2011 for his leadership role in Taishi Village.

All three focused on social issues recognized to be important by the government, including the rule of law, the fight against corruption, and inequality. All have carefully and painstakingly adhered to peaceful and lawful means in their activism. During a demonstration in January 2013 against the censorship of Southern Weekly, Guo Feixiong ensured the demonstrators did not block the gate of the publication, the road, or the pedestrian path, and that they left the demonstration promptly by the end of the workday.

“For years activists could mostly predict what kind of work or degree of pressure on authorities would eventually get them into trouble,” Richardson said. “But if these experienced and skillful moderates are prosecuted for their work, all bets on where the repression ends appear to be off.”

The detentions in this long crackdown are also characterized by procedural violations that are so blatant as to appear politically sanctioned. Despite senior officials’ pledges at an October 2014 Communist Party plenum to upholding the rule of law, Guo Yushan was not allowed access to lawyers until January 8, 2015, more than three months from his detention, although the law normally requires the detention center to arrange the meeting within 48 hours of the lawyers’ application. Detention center staff told Guo’s lawyers that he could not meet with his lawyer because his case involves either “state secrets, terrorism, or major corruption,” three crimes for which police approval is required prior to the lawyer-client meeting according to the law. Yet Guo’s charge is manifestly unrelated to any of these situations.

Pu Zhiqiang “had been subject to inhuman mental and physical torment,” including daily interrogations for up to 10 hours a day over a period of several months, according to a December 19, 2014 open letter from his wife to President Xi Jinping. Guo Feixiong has not been allowed out of his overcrowded cell once in the past 17 months in detention, although article 25 of the Detention Center Regulations requires that detainees be allowed out of their cells to exercise every day.

In a particularly alarming move, authorities have also detained Guo Yushan’s and Pu Zhiqiang’s defense lawyers, Xia Lin and Qu Zhenhong. Xia is detained on allegations of “extortion,” and Qu for “illegally obtaining citizens’ personal information.” While the government has frequently arrested lawyers for their activism in the past, it rarely arrested defense lawyers while they were handling prominent cases. Both Xia and Qu have also been denied access to their defense lawyers.

The detentions of Guo Yushan, Pu Zhiqiang, and Guo Feixiong are consistent with the broader crackdown since mid-2013, when Xi Jinping formally assumed power. The police have detained, arrested, and disappeared at least hundreds of activists since then, targeting those who were involved in the New Citizens Movement spearheaded by legal scholar Xu Zhiyong in 2013, and those who are suspected of supporting the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong between September and December 2014. Another wave of detentions also took place around the 25th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre of pro-democracy protesters. Many have since been prosecuted and imprisoned following unfair trials, while others have been released.

Of those who were detained in this latest wave of crackdown against suspected supporters of the pro-democracy Hong Kong protests, 29 remain in custody, according to the NGO Chinese Human Rights Defenders. Those detained include the Transition Institute’s current director, Huang Kaiping, and its administrative director, He Zhengjun. The authorities have also detained Liu Jianshu, the former deputy director-general of another NGO with close relations to the Transition Institute, called Liren Rural Libraries.

Some of these individuals, including Huang Kaiping, have been effectively disappeared for over a month, as police have not yet informed families of the detentions, or of the detainees’ whereabouts despite legal requirements to do so. Police have also refused to acknowledge their detention to their lawyers when the latter went to make enquiries at the detention centers. The use of enforced disappearances against activists is reminiscent of the disappearances and torture of dozens of activists during the government’s clampdown on civil society in the spring of 2011, when an anonymous call for a Jasmine Revolution in China was posted online.

“If these three people are sent to jail, there can be no more illusions about the nature of the current leadership in Beijing,” Richardson said. “Those who claim worldwide to defend civil society – from US President Barack Obama to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon – need to immediately and publicly call for these activists’ release.”