China to prosecute prominent rights lawyer on subversion charges

China will prosecute a prominent Chinese human rights lawyer on charges of subverting state power after months of secret detention, prosecutors said on Friday, the latest move by authorities to crack down on dissent.

President Xi Jinping's administration has tightened control over almost every aspect of civil society since 2012, citing the need to buttress national security and stability.

China consistently rejects any criticism of its human rights record, saying it adheres to the rule of law, that all are equal under the law and that those who break the law can expect to be punished.

Dozens of lawyers and activists associated with the Beijing Fengrui law firm have been swept up in the crackdown and held since last July, triggering concern in Western capitals.

The firm has represented several high-profile clients, including the ethnic Uighur dissident, Ilham Tohti. 

State media has accused the firm and its associates of orchestrating protests outside courts and politicizing ordinary legal cases in order to attract international attention.

Zhou Shifeng, the firm's director, will be prosecuted on charges of subverting state power, the prosecutor in the northern city of Tianjin said in a brief statement on its official microblog, without giving details.

An official reached by telephone at the prosecutor's office declined further comment.

It was not clear who Zhou's own lawyer currently is.

Shang Baojun, another well-known rights lawyer, told Reuters that Zhou's previous legal team had all been replaced by government-appointed lawyers.

"To be honest, we don't know anything more about his case than you do," Shang said, adding that a court date could still be two months off, according to Chinese law.

The prosecutor said in the same statement that three other rights activists — Hu Shigen, Zhai Yanmin and Gou Hongguo — would also be prosecuted on the same charges.

It was also not possible to immediately locate lawyers for them for comment.

In severe cases, the charges can result in life sentences.

Late on Friday, the official Legal Daily published two commentaries on its website saying those involved in Fengrui had challenged state security and the political system, and criticized Western countries for hyping up the issue for their own purposes and accused them of bankrolling rights lawyers.

"A small number of 'rights lawyers' have become the leverage the West uses in its political contest with China," the paper said.

Last week, US legislators criticized China's detention of the lawyers, a year after the crackdown against them began, while Germany urged China to live up to its human rights obligations.

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