TIANJIN, China (AP) — China released a prominent human rights lawyer on bail amid protests Monday outside a northern city court, where supporters of other jailed lawyers and activists condemned the secrecy surrounding the government's yearlong campaign against legal activism.
The release of Wang Yu, who was detained last July, coincided with videos of an alleged confession by Wang posted on the websites of two Hong Kong media outlets in which she renounced her legal work and said "foreign forces" were using her law firm to undermine and discredit the Chinese government.
Wang's Beijing-based firm, Fengrui, has been at the center of a vast case in which dozens of lawyers and activists have been detained, questioned or charged with subversion since July last year.
Wen Donghai, a lawyer for Wang, told The Associated Press on Monday that he had learned from media reports that Wang had been released but had not seen her. Li Yuhan, another lawyer representing Wang, said Wang's mother did not know of her release.
The AP could not independently verify the authenticity of the videos, and Phoenix TV, one of the outlets that interviewed Wang, declined to disclose where and when the interview took place.
Wang's reported release and confession were an unexpected bombshell for China's small but burgeoning human rights community on a day when many believed the head of the Fengrui firm, Zhou Shifeng, and three activists were standing trial behind closed doors in northern China.
Flanked by Western diplomats, around two dozen supporters gathered outside the Tianjin No. 2 Intermediate People's Court calling for information to be disclosed about the four, who were indicted in mid-July.
Supporters included the wife of Gou Hongguo, one of the activists who was charged with subversion and thought to be standing trial Monday, even though there were no visible signs of a trial in progress aside from a heavy presence of plainclothes security officers outside the courthouse. Court officials reached by phone said they had no information about the cases.
Several hundred people nationwide have been questioned, with some detained and arrested, in the crackdown that has sent a chill through China's legal system. Nearly two dozen people remain in detention and face charges, the most serious of which include subversion of state power, which carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
In her video interview, Wang denounced Zhou, the law firm's head, as an unqualified lawyer and said all of the firm's lawyers had received training in how to use Western universal values, human rights and democracy to "attack and smear" the Chinese government.
She accused unidentified foreign powers of hatching a plot to smuggle her 16-year-old son to the United States and denounced the American Bar Association for awarding her its newly created "ABA International Human Rights Award."
"Regarding this award, my attitude is to not recognize it, identify with it or accept it. This award is just another way for them to use me to attack and smear the Chinese government," said Wang, who was seated in a garden at what appeared to be a western-style villa.
"I am a Chinese. I can only accept awards from the Chinese government," Wang said.
Wang's statement is the latest in a series of alleged confessions that have appeared in Chinese state media — and, more recently, in Hong Kong outlets — with the apparent goal of settling high-profile political cases before they go to trial.
Zhao Wei, a 24-year old legal assistant who was seized last July, was released in early July and similarly told the South China Morning Post newspaper that she regretted her activism.
After their release by Chinese authorities earlier this year, Peter Dahlin, a Swedish non-profit worker, and Lam Wing Kee, a Hong Kong bookseller, recanted confessions they made while in detention to Chinese state broadcaster CCTV.
An overseas Chinese news site and activist groups that track the prosecutions of Chinese rights activists had reported rumors that Zhou, the law firm's head, Gou and the two others might be put on trial on Monday. Wives of lawyers and activists who were detained in the crackdown staged a small demonstration outside the courthouse next to diplomats from the United States, Britain and six other Western countries that have publicly denounced Beijing's crackdown.
Fan Lili, the wife of Gou, fell to the ground in tears following a confrontation with a plainclothes police officer while dozens of security agents who blanketed the street watched, filming with smartphones and video cameras.
"My son is 16 months old now and he has never even met his father. How can you be like this? Let him come home," Fan said. "All I'm here for today is to ask whether they are holding his hearing and . why did they beat me?"
Local officials later persuaded the family members, supporters and diplomats to move from the courthouse gate.
Family members say they have not been permitted to visit the jailed lawyers and activists since they were taken away more than a year ago. Chinese authorities, they say, have also refused to identify the legal counsel they have appointed to represent the defendants instead of the lawyers appointed by their families.
Chinese state media have previously accused the Fengrui firm's lawyers and associated activists of disrupting social order by organizing protests and stirring up trouble for personal gain. Rights groups say the activists are being targeted for organizing protests and social media campaigns to raise awareness of legal rights and hot-button social issues.
Jiang Tianyong, a Beijing-based human rights lawyer, said the level of secrecy was unusual. In the past, high-profile dissidents such as writer Liu Xiaobo had family-appointed lawyers and relatives present at their trials. Jiang said the disappearances, presumably into police custody, of at least two of the presumed defendants' wives as they were headed to Tianjin on Sunday were strong indications that a trial was under way.
"This is unprecedented ... a completely secret operation," said Jiang. "From beginning to end, it's a black box."
AP video journalists Aritz Parra and Annie Ho contributed to this report.