Rights activists on Monday called for the release of Shanghai activist Chen Jianfang, who has been held incommunicado for more than six months on subversion charges, saying she is at high risk of torture.
Chen was detained on March 20 alongside her husband, and the couple 'disappeared' for several months. Chen was formally arrested on suspicion of "subversion of state power" on May 22, while her husband was released on bail on April 3.
She was indicted by the state prosecutor on Aug. 30, and her case transferred to the Shanghai No. 1 Intermediate People's Court. Chen is currently being held in the Shanghai Detention Center.
"Chen has been denied the right to a fair trial," six rights groups said in an open letter to the Chinese authorities on Monday. "She has not been allowed a single meeting with the lawyer of her choice throughout her detention since March. It is unclear if she has received any legal counsel in custody."
"Chen was subjected to months of enforced disappearance," the letter said. "Nothing is known about her condition at the detention center. Torture is rampant in Chinese detention facilities and Chen is at high risk of torture."
Chen's detention came days after she penned an essay paying tribute rights activist Cao Shunli on the fifth anniversary of her death in police custody on March 14, 2014, the Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network said in a copy of the letter posted on its website.
Chen's incommunicado detention was the subject of an appeal from four United Nations human rights experts to the Chinese government in August.
"Chen Jianfang’s indictment follows a recent uptick in the Chinese government’s harsh persecution of human rights defenders in China," the letter said. "We call on the Chinese government to immediately and unconditionally release Chen Jianfang ... and all other human rights defenders detained in retaliation for exercising their rights."
A friend of Chen's who gave only her surname Liang said in a recent interview with RFA that Chen had initially hired rights lawyer Zhang Lei to represent her, but that this choice was rejected by the authorities.
"The lawyer went to the court to make inquiries ... but nothing came of it," Liang said. "They refused to recognize him [as her lawyer], and the police wouldn't deal with him either."
Liang said she isn't optimistic about the outcome for Chen, because the case is being heard not in a district court, but in an intermediate court, in the first instance.
"That means trouble," Liang said. "Criminal cases like murder with life sentences get heard in intermediate courts, so I am very worried about Chen Jianfang."
Repeated calls to the Shanghai No. 1 Intermediate People's Court rang unanswered during office hours on Monday.
Chen, a Shanghai-based housing activist who was recently prevented from leaving China was recently named as a recipient of the 4th Cao Shunli Memorial Award for Human Rights Defenders by Civil Rights & Livelihood Watch, Human Rights Campaign in China, and CHRD.
Chen, 49, who hails from a rural community, began defending land and housing rights after her family lost land to government-backed developers.
Her work has highlighted the widespread mass evictions behind Shanghai's skyscrapers and high-speed railways, key elements in China's development showcase that mask widespread abuses of residents' rights.
She has referred to Cao Shunli as "my spiritual teacher, from whom I learned some of the highest ideals."
"My own rights defense work is indivisible from what she taught me," Chen wrote to RFA at the time of the award.
Chen's detention comes at a time of worsening rights abuses under President Xi Jinping, who now looks set to rule indefinitely.
Cao was detained on Sept. 14, 2013, as she was boarding a flight to Geneva, where she was to attend a session of the U.N. Human Rights Council, where she hoped to participate in drafting China’s human rights action plans and reports for its U.N. human rights reviews.
Reported by Wong Lok-to for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by He Ping for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.