BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese authorities have confiscated a lawyer's licence and threatened to do the same to another after they volunteered to defend the nephew of blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng.
The moves come as Chen, whose escape from house arrest last month sparked an international furore, said officials were "going crazy" with reprisals against his family in eastern Shandong province.
Chen's escape and subsequent refuge in the U.S. embassy caused embarrassment for China and led to a diplomatic crisis in Sino-U.S. relations.
The Chinese Communist Party has always been wary of lawyers, who officials suspect could challenge one-party rule through their advocacy of the rule of law. Authorities have frequently sought to prevent lawyers from taking up politically sensitive cases by suspending their licences.
The pressure has intensified in the last year.
In 2011, dozens of human rights lawyers were detained without charge as China cracked down on potential political challengers amid fears that anti-authoritarian uprisings in the Arab world could inspire protests against one-party rule.
Chen Wuquan, a lawyer based in the southern province of Guangdong, told Reuters the Guangzhou Lawyers' Association had confiscated his licence "temporarily" last week during a standard annual renewal. The lawyer Chen is not related to the Chen family from Shandong.
The association told him it could not renew his licence because it had to deal with a complaint about an article he had written about the Chinese legal system.
"It must be related (to the nephew's case)," Chen Wuquan said. "Because this kind of complaint should be processed quickly. It's not possible that they would have to confiscate my licence and not allow me to handle new cases."
The justice ministry was not available for comment.
Chen Wuquan was supposed to travel to Shandong on Thursday to meet the nephew, Chen Kegui, who has been accused of "homicide with intent". He is said to have brandished a kitchen cleaver at guards who stormed into the home of the blind dissident's brothers after his escape prompted a panicked search by officials.
Jiang Tianyong, a prominent rights lawyer, told Reuters that the charge of "homicide with intent" had been trumped up and that it should actually be "wounding with intent".
"When Chen Guangcheng heard the news, he said: 'How vile,'" said Jiang, a friend of the blind activist.
Chen Guangcheng, who is recuperating in a Beijing hospital, had told Reuters his biggest worry now was for his nephew.
Ren Zongju, Chen Kegui's mother, was released after she "obtained a guarantee pending a trial", similar to bail. Ren was detained on April 29 for "harbouring" a criminal, according to a copy of the release document.
"LET'S TALK POLITICS"
In late April, six lawyers formed a team volunteering to defend Chen Kegui after an audio recording of him sobbing appeared on a blog. One of the lawyers, Liu Weiguo, said that number has grown to 13, despite warnings from the authorities to lawyers not to get involved.
Liu, who was initially supposed to be the lead lawyer representing Chen Kegui, told Reuters he was on his way to Linyi in Shandong to meet Chen Kegui in late April when state security officers warned him to drop the case, saying his licence could be revoked and they would "meet" with his family.
He was asked to return immediately to Jinan, the capital of Shandong, where he is based.
"They said: 'We have to talk about politics,'" Liu said. "I said: 'I'm a lawyer, I only talk about the law. Besides, I don't understand your politics.'"
Liu brought up the example of the downfall of Bo Xilai, an ambitious senior leader caught up in a murder scandal.
"'Perhaps the politics we have to talk about today would be wrong tomorrow,'" Liu said he told the officers. "They were speechless."
After the threats, several members of the legal team decided that Chen Wuquan should replace Liu. Liu said he was worried about the threats, but pledged never to back out of the case.
"It seriously undermines the assurances given by the Chinese government that the pattern of illegalities suffered by Chen and his family in Linyi would be investigated," said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher with Human Rights Watch.
Rights lawyer Liang Xiaojun, also a member of Chen's legal team, said officials from the judicial ministry telephoned him and told him they wanted to set up a meeting to talk about the "Chen Kegui case".
The lawyer Jiang said authorities had told him not to get involved in anything related to Chen Guangcheng.