More than 50 Chinese human rights lawyers and staffers have been detained in a roundup spanning nearly half of the country.
Many of the lawyers were interrogated by police officers and national security officials after being detained Friday. By Saturday night, most had been released after receiving stern warnings, but some faced house arrest. Several remained incommunicado.
"This is certainly a coordinated, organized crackdown, not ordinary law enforcement," said Fu Hualing, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong. Fu counted several friends among the detainees.
"The detentions come only two weeks after the end of the U.S.-China Strategic & Economic Dialogue and set an ugly tone for President Xi's (Jinping) U.S. visit in September," Smith said in a statement Friday.
The mass roundup began with the disappearance of Beijing lawyers Wang Yu and Zhou Shifeng, colleagues at the same law firm well-known for tackling high-profile cases. Zhou "disappeared" hours after he celebrated the release of client Zhang Miao, formerly a news assistant for Die Zeit, a German newsweekly, who was held since October for allegedly organizing activities in support of pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong.
Wang was on the legal team that represented Ilham Tohti, an economics professor and outspoken advocate for Uighurs, whose life sentence on separatism charges was upheld after appeal last year. Wang's lawyer husband, Bao Longjun, and their son were intercepted by police for detention, after Wang saw them off at the airport Wednesday. Their 16-year-old son has since been released.
Speculation is rife that the roundup was expanded as a result of the solidarity lawyers showed in protesting the initial disappearances. But professor Fu said there wasn't sufficient evidence to support any theory.
"There's a deficit of information at the moment, and the lack of knowledge about what is going only generates more fear," Fu said.
In recent crackdowns, the focus has centered mostly around the capital Beijing, where a number of public-interest law firms operate close to the national seat of power. The latest effort was unusual for its broad geographical sweep. Lawyers from as many as 15 provinces have been involved.
In the southern city of Guangzhou, veteran lawyer Sui Muqing stepped out of his apartment to check a report of his car being damaged. Once outside, Sui was taken to the local police station. Last October, Sui accepted the case of Wang Zang, a Beijing poet detained after voicing support on social media for Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators.
Sui since has been placed under house arrest for "subversion of state power," according to a stream of updates disseminated on Twitter regarding the roundup. Chinese human rights lawyers in the U.S. and rights groups in Hong Kong have been proactive in broadcasting news of the crackdown.
Many observers pointed out that the crackdown is the largest since 2011, when 35 human rights activists and lawyers were arrested in the midst of pro-democracy protests sparked by those in Africa and the Middle East.