Twenty of China's most courageous and outspoken civil rights lawyers face being disbarred next Monday, as judicial authorities reject or delay their applications to renew their professional licenses, according to three of the lawyers affected.
Forbidding them to practice after a May 31 deadline would, at a stroke, decapitate the budding "rights protection movement" that is at the heart of activists' efforts to build a civil society in China.
"If these 20 lose their licenses it would be the biggest step back in legal reform for 20 years," warns Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher with Human Rights Watch based in Hong Kong. "It would be really very dramatic."
The lawyers who have reported problems having their annual licenses renewed have all represented plaintiffs or defendants in politically sensitive cases over the past year, such as members of the banned Falun Gong religious group, parents of children killed at their school desks in the Sichuan earthquake last May, and people arrested in the March 2008 crackdown in Tibet.
What they have in common, says Jiang Tianyong, who recently successfully represented a Tibetan monk charged with concealing weapons, is that "we do not take orders from the [government's] Judicial Affairs Bureau" about which cases to take.
Some, like Wei Liangyue in the northern city of Harbin, who recently served 30 days in prison in connection with the defendant, accused of belonging to Falun Gong, whom he is representing, have already been told by officials that their licences will not be renewed before the deadline.
"They are worried that I will take more Falun Gong cases," says Mr. Wei.
Others, such as Mr. Jiang, have not yet received official notification that they should send their license for renewal. "There is not much time left," he points out, fearful that he will be unable to practice law next week.
Dong Chunjiang, a senior official at the Beijing Judicial Affairs Bureau, refused to answer a reporter's questions about the delay.
Though troublesome lawyers have had problems in the past renewing their licenses, "this year it is more severe," says Patrick Poon, executive secretary of the Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group. "These lawyers are taking up a lot of sensitive cases ... and that has touched a nerve in the authorities," he adds.
"More and more lawyers are getting involved in these sorts of cases," says Wen Haibo, who says he fears for his license because of his work on behalf of some of the 50,000-plus children poisoned by Sanlu-brand powdered milk last fall, among other things. "Somebody believes that if this trend continues, the situation will get out of control."
The handful of civil rights lawyers have an impact far beyond their numbers. Of the 120,000 lawyers in China, hardly any take criminal cases, let alone human rights cases. Only a few score lawyers have taken it upon themselves to litigate sensitive cases.
Even if all or most of the controversial group are eventually given new licenses, warns Mr. Bequelin, the affair "will have a chilling effect on lawyers, to deter them from taking sensitive cases.
"You can have all kinds of nice laws, but if people don't dare to take cases to court it defeats the purpose of having rights," he points out. "In China lawyers are walking on thin ice, and we are hearing some cracks that are not very reassuring."
Jiang and other civil rights lawyers say that their firms have come under quiet but strong pressure from the judicial authorities to sack them, or to steer them clear of cases that the government would prefer to see swept under the carpet. Earlier this year a prominent civil rights law firm, Yitong, was closed down for six months on a technicality.
"We are seen as unstable elements in society, and the government wants to maintain superficial harmony and stability," Jiang says.
Silencing lawyers, however, does not resolve the social problems that they bring to court, such as land grabs or other illegal practices by local authorities.
The ranks of civil rights lawyers have swelled in recent years because "they are riding a tectonic shift in the citizenry's view of the law," says Bequelin. "You can shoot the messenger, but that won't change Chinese citizens putting up more of a fight to defend their rights."