Wang Qiaoling's battle to find missing lawyer husband, Li Heping

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Media captionWang Qiaoling has not heard from her husband Li Heping since he was taken away two months ago

Faced with injustice. there are many people in China who make a perfectly understandable choice: it is better to protect yourself and your family than to risk the wrath of the authorities by speaking out.

And then there are those who have nothing left to lose.

Wang Qiaoling has been warned by the police not to give interviews to the foreign media but has decided to ignore the threat that it will make her husband's case worse.

"If I don't step forward, who's going to speak for him?" she asks me. "I am his wife."

Ms Wang's nightmare began exactly two months ago, on 10 July.

Under suspicion

Her husband Li Heping, one of China's best known human rights lawyers, was picked up at his office by a group of plain-clothes police officers who then escorted him home.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Last year saw reforms designed to make courts less corrupt and less embedded in local politics

"The door opened and several strangers came in," Ms Wang says.

"I didn't know what was going on. My husband also came in. He handed me his keys, and he was taken downstairs by two tall men."

That is the last she has seen or heard of him since.

Sixty-one days later and counting - long past China's upper limit of 37 days before the police have to charge or release a suspect - there has been no official notification of his whereabouts, his health and wellbeing or any details at all regarding the crimes for which he is supposedly under suspicion.

"I accompanied my lawyer to the Tianjin Public Security Bureau - as this was the one listed on the plain-clothes' ID - but none of the policemen there seemed to know what had happened," Ms Wang tells me.

"It's strange that more than 10 policemen from that bureau raided my apartment and took away my husband, and yet they pretend to know nothing about it."

The case is a clear example of how, despite the much-vaunted reforms made two years ago to China's Criminal Procedure Law - meant to bring the country more into line with international norms - little has changed.

Ms Wang's account swings from the terrifying to the bizarre - a Kafkaesque ordeal with a hint of the Keystone Cops.

At one point during the search of her home, after Mr Li had been taken away, Ms Wang says the police seemed to come to a sudden realisation that they did in fact need to follow some kind of procedure and, at the very least, her permission for their presence would be useful.

So they all trooped out of the apartment, knocked on the door, and asked her to re-open it.

"I told them 'Why are you acting now... I won't play along with your acting!"" she exclaims.

And so back the plain-clothes officers came and the search continued. They removed five boxes of books, three laptops, one desktop computer, some mobile phones and 10 USB memory sticks.


Even the act of instructing a lawyer took Ms Wang almost a week because the first one she tried was himself taken away for questioning by the police the next morning.

Image caption Wang Qiaoling has been warned by the police not to give interviews to the foreign media

In total, according to the figures compiled by the Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Lawyers' Concern Group, since early July more than 280 human rights lawyers and activists and some of their relatives and assistants have been either summoned for questioning, formally detained or simply disappeared.

Today 29 are thought to remain in custody. Fourteen of them, like Mr Li, are qualified attorneys.

"He has integrity," Ms Wang tells me, failing to fight back the tears.

"Sometimes, I would tell my son that you have to be happy, because every penny earned by your father is clean. I also tell my daughter, your father is missing because he speaks up for the rights of the weak."

Mr Li is a devout Christian and he has spent his career defending those persecuted by the authorities for their religious or spiritual beliefs, as well as those political activists and dissidents who dare to challenge the Communist Party's monopoly on power.

His clients have included other prominent lawyers, including Chen Guangcheng and Gao Zhisheng. He has received a number of international awards, such as the 2008 Human Rights Award from the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe.

But while Ms Wang has been unable to obtain any information about her husband's whereabouts, or the charges he faces, China's state-run media have been busy trying to convict him in print.

In articles printed in the days after the crackdown began and carried by a large number of Communist Party-run papers, his name is listed alongside eight other detained lawyers.

They were, the reports alleged, part of a "criminal syndicate" of attorneys who used their professional positions to "cause trouble" and to "disturb the public order".

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Mr Li's clients have included other prominent lawyers, including Chen Guangcheng
Image copyright AP
Image caption Rights groups say scores of Chinese religious and rights activists have been detained in recent months

The examples given are vague and appear, at the worst, to suggest that the lawyers are guilty of nothing more than complementing their courtroom battles with a few extra-legal activities such as protesting and petitioning in support of their clients.

Unsurprisingly, many outside observers and human rights groups see a sinister ulterior motive.

After all, there are not many human rights lawyers in China.

Hauling in such a large proportion of them - and making examples of some of the more high profile - is bound to have a chilling effect on the possibility of ever developing an independent, judicial route to challenging authority.

The continuing detention of the lawyers, this argument suggests, goes hand-in-hand with the wider crackdown on dissent and opposition that has marked President Xi Jinping's first two-and-a-half-years in office.

Ms Wang has decided there is no alternative but to fight.

As well as her refusal to be silenced, she has mounted a legal case against the Xinhua news agency and the People's Daily, among others, in an attempt to get them to print an apology and pay compensation for their slander of her husband.

"I simply don't understand why so many lawyers have been taken in," Ms Wang tells me. "We no longer have emperors: no-one can just take our lives at will.

"I don't understand how you can arrest and take away the lawyers who are working under the framework of the law," she adds, "unless we admit that the laws that China publishes are not those that the authorities follow."

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