(New York) – The Chinese authorities’ formal arrest of at least 11 human rights lawyers, legal assistants, and activists on political subversion charges is an unprecedented and grave escalation of attacks on rights defenders in China, Human Rights Watch said today. Authorities should immediately drop the charges and release the 11, as well as other lawyers and human rights advocates in custody for political reasons.

Chinese police rounded up approximately 300 rights lawyers, legal assistants, and activists across the country, between July 9 and September 2015. Six months after the start of the crackdown, 11 have now been formally arrested, three have been released on bail, and 24 remain unaccounted for. Those officially arrested face a high likelihood of prosecution and conviction.

“The formal arrests of these rights lawyers on subversion charges means that the Chinese government now thinks that using the law to defend human rights is a subversive act against the state,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “This shocking attack on the legal profession is aimed at frightening lawyers away from representing clients who are at odds with the Communist Party.”

Most of those held since the July 2015 crackdown were detained under a form of pretrial detention called “designated residential surveillance,” which allows police to hold suspects incommunicado and in secret locations for up to six months. Many of those detained were required under Chinese law to be formally arrested or released by January 9, 2016.

The families of the 11 formally arrested received arrest notices from the police dated January 8 and 9, 2016. Seven were arrested for the crime of “subversion of state power,” while three were arrested for “inciting subversion of state power.” The 11 formally arrested are:

  • Zhou Shifeng, a lawyer and the director of Beijing Fengrui Law Firm, which has hired lawyers undertaking human rights work. He was arrested for “subversion” and is currently held at Tianjin No. 1 Detention Center.
  • Wang Yu, a lawyer and employee of Fengrui, was arrested for “subversion.” She is at Tianjin No. 1 Detention Center.
  • Wang Quanzhang, a lawyer and employee of Fengrui, was arrested for “subversion.” He is at Tianjin No. 2 Detention Center.
  • Li Shuyun, a trainee lawyer at Fengrui, was arrested for “subversion.” She is at Tianjin No. 1 Detention Center.
  • Zhao Wei (known as Kaola), the assistant of Beijing-based human rights lawyer Li Heping, was arrested for “subversion.” She is at Tianjin No. 1 Detention Center.
  • Liu Sixin, administrative assistant of Fengrui, was arrested for “subversion.” He is at Tianjin No. 2 Detention Center.
  • Hu Shigen, a veteran rights activist, was arrested for “inciting subversion.” He is at Tianjin No. 1 Detention Center.
  • Bao Longjun, a citizen legal representative who is applying to become a trainee lawyer and the husband of Wang Yu, was arrested for “inciting subversion.” He is at Tianjin No. 2 Detention Center.
  • Xie Yang, a Hunan-based lawyer, was arrested for “inciting subversion.” He is at Changsha No. 2 Detention Center.
  • Xie Yanyi, a Beijing-based lawyer, was arrested for “inciting subversion.” He is at Tianjin No. 2 Detention Center.
  • Gao Yue, the assistant of Li Heping, was arrested for “assisting the destruction of evidence.” She is at Tianjin No. 1 Detention Center.

The three released on bail are Fengrui lawyer Huang Liqun, Fengrui financial manager Wang Fang, and Guangzhou-based lawyer Sui Muqing.

“Subversion” – acts intended to undermine state power – is a very serious offense in China. Depending on the level of their alleged involvement, those convicted face up to life imprisonment if they are found to be “ringleaders.” Those found guilty of “inciting subversion” can face up to 15 years of imprisonment. For example, the founder of a domestic human rights website, Huang Qi, was imprisoned for five years in 2000 for subversion. Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and lawyer Gao Zhisheng, known for his defense of banned Falun Gong practitioners, were imprisoned for 13 years and three years, respectively.

There is no publicly available evidence that any of these individuals engaged in any form of speech or acts that are not protected under the Chinese constitution or international law, both of which protect the rights to peaceful expression and freedom of association.

“Under President Xi Jinping, who formally assumed power in March 2013, the Chinese government has staged a comprehensive assault on freedom of expression and the rule of law,” Richardson said.

In addition to detaining and imprisoning hundreds of activists, lawyers, and others deemed critical of the government or Communist Party, authorities have targeted the Internet and the media, emphasizing the importance of “correct” ideology and the supremacy of the party among university lecturers, party members, and journalists. The government has also introduced a draft Foreign Non-Governmental Organizations Management Law and a raft of national security laws casting dissent as a threat.

“Representing clients in court and publicizing their cases is not subversion or any other crime,” Richardson said. “Instead, it is the Chinese government that is subverting the protection of basic human rights and the rule of law.”