HONG KONG — At least five Chinese lawyers from a firm that specialized in rights cases have been detained by the police in Beijing and accused of running a criminal syndicate to smear the Communist Party and “create social chaos” through their litigation, state-run news media said on Saturday.
The accusations bear the hallmarks of a concerted operation, and signaled one of the most high-profile efforts by the party under President Xi Jinpingto discredit the “rights defense movement,” which has tried to challenge state power through litigation and publicity, said experts and rights advocates.
“Their objective was to win fame and profit and to create social chaos,” said the news report laying out charges against the rights lawyer Zhou Shifeng and his colleagues, which was published online by People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s leading newspaper; Xinhua, the main state news agency; and other outlets.
“These no-holds-barred lawyers staged open defiance inside the courtroom and on the Internet, and behind the scenes instructed their key troublemakers to organize petitioners” into protests, the official news reports said.
“Zhou Shifeng and the others are suspected of other serious crimes, and the case is still under investigation,” it said, citing the police. The reports did not describe the specific crimes they are accused of.
The reports came after many of the suspects had disappeared into police custody on Thursday and Friday. Over the same time, nearly 60 other lawyers and activists had also been detained or went out of contact, a sign that they may have been detained, said the Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a group in close contact with many activists. Some of the detainees were released after questioning by the police.
Experts and rights advocates said the blast of state news media reports about Mr. Zhou and his colleagues appeared to be an aggressive attempt to discredit all rights lawyers and activists as greedy schemers who menace social order.
“It reflects the Xi Jinping approach — bold and neo-totalitarian — but then it also reflects the strength of the movement,” said Eva Pils, a law scholar at Kings College London who studies China’s broad movement of rights defense lawyers. “They see a need to delegitimize it, to officially declare the human rights lawyers enemies of the state.”
Citing a police investigation, the report said that Mr. Zhou had overseen a series of “sensitive cases,” in which lawyers mobilized aggrieved citizens, fanned publicity over the Internet and used aggressive courtroom tactics. The lawyers wanted to enrich themselves and to undermine the party, said the report, which also cited purported confessions from one of the lawyers as well as two activists, including one employed by Mr. Zhou’s law firm.
From 2012, Mr. Zhou and his associates formed “a major criminal gang that organized and planned creating an uproar in more than 40 sensitive cases and that serious disturbed social order,” said the report.
Apart from Mr. Zhou, the other suspects under criminal detention for further investigation included Wang Yu, Liu Sixin, Wang Quanzhang and Huang Liqun, all lawyers who worked at the Fengrui Law Firm alongside Mr. Zhou. Wang Yu’s husband, Bao Longjun, who assisted her work, was also detained.
The police earlier arrested Zhai Yanmin and Wu Gan — two activists who advised aggrieved citizens and helped publicize their demands through raucous campaigns. They are accused of working with Mr. Zhou and his colleagues to foment protests and controversy. Mr. Wu’s protests included a mock funerary altar for a judge outside a court.
“The suggestion that these lawyers and activists are part of a ‘major criminal gang’ sets a new low,” Sophie Richardson, the China director of Human Rights Watch, an advocacy organization, said by email. “It’s all the more ironic given the plethora of procedural violations by police in the last 48 hours. If anyone’s conduct requires immediate, thorough scrutiny, it’s the Ministry of Public Security’s, not the lawyers.’ ”