BEIJING (Reuters) - Human rights group Amnesty International called on Thursday for China to stop the harassment, arbitrary detention and torture of human rights lawyers, part of what it said was an "uncompromising" series of steps to rein in activists.
The group said Chinese authorities "are not only failing to ensure protection for human rights lawyers and others seeking to provide legal services, but are actively undermining their work through legislative, administrative and practical measures."
"If lawyers and legal workers are rendered incapable of challenging human rights violations committed by those acting in an official capacity, there can be no effective protection of human rights in China," it said in a report.
Amnesty said Chinese authorities must "recognize that lawyers are independent of the state," and "abandon the practice of governing lawyers through state justice bureaus and other administrative departments."
The Chinese government routinely denies mistreating activists, saying everyone is treated equally in accordance with the law, and that nobody is above the law.
Since February, China has mounted a crackdown on potential political challengers to the ruling Communist Party, fearing that anti-authoritarian uprisings in the Arab world could inspire protests against one-party rule.
More than 130 rights activists and human rights lawyers have been detained or "disappeared" without charges, according to Amnesty, noting that out of more than 204,000 lawyers in China, only a few hundred dare tackle human rights cases.
China's loose network of human rights lawyers emerged a decade ago, using a mix of litigation, publicity and lobbying to challenge arbitrary detention, restrictions on speech and other limits on citizens.
For a few years, that "rights defense" campaign scored some successes, and helped defend dissidents and protesters facing trial for challenging Communist Party rule.
The movement now faces pressure as the party pushes back against activism, keen to ensure no challenge to its rule as it prepares for a hand-over of power to a new generation of leaders starting from late next year.
"Of course this has directly influenced citizens' ability to receive help, especially those who the government has deemed dissidents," rights lawyer Shang Baojun told Reuters.
"There are very few lawyers prepared to represent them now. Obviously, this will impact on the progress of democracy and the rule of law in China."
When they do get released, many of these rights lawyers have remained largely silent.
Jiang Tianyong, who was seized in February by security officers and held for two months, told Reuters last week that there were "a few conditions," referring to the terms of his release, including that he not speak to the foreign media.
China's best known rights lawyer, Gao Zhisheng, has been missing since April last year, when he resurfaced briefly after being abducted from his relative's home in Shaanxi province in early February 2009.
Others have been victims of violent attacks, according to rights groups.
Blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng, held under informal house arrest since his release from jail last year, was beaten unconscious and not allowed to visit a doctor, his wife said, according to a U.S. advocacy group.
(Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee and Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Maxim Duncan; Editing by Robert Birsel)