Chinese authorities have notified the family of veteran rights lawyer Yu Wensheng and his wife Xu Yan of their formal arrest on suspicion of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," a charge frequently used to target peaceful critics of the Communist Party, friends of the couple told Radio Free Asia.
Yu and Xu were detained last month en route to a meeting with European Union officials in Beijing, prompting calls for their release from Brussels.
U.S.-based rights lawyer Wang Qingpeng said there are now fears that Yu and Xu may be tortured in order to elicit a "confession," given the amount of international attention generated by their arrests.
"The authorities will be concerned about how this case looks ... and about international attention," Wang said. "A lot of lawyers have been warned off representing Yu Wensheng and his wife."
"Many lawyers have been tortured already, including Xie Yang, Wang Quanzhang, Chang Weiping and Zhou Shifeng," he said. "We have reason to believe that Yu Wensheng and Xu Yan could also be tortured, so as to avoid further outside attention and attempts at rescue."
"There could be further [and more serious charges] to come, for example, 'incitement to subvert state power,' which is impossible to predict right now," Wang said.
Chinese courts almost never acquit political prisoners, and the charge Yu and Xu currently face generally leads to jail terms of up to five years.
A friend of the couple who asked to remain anonymous said Yu's brother received notification of his formal arrest on May 21.
"According to what I have learned, Yu Wensheng has put up a great deal of resistance to the authorities since his detention," the friend said. "His brother has also said [their detention] is unacceptable."
Police informed Yu's brother of the change of status on Sunday, but had refused to give the family anything in writing, the brother said.
"His brother tried to get a photo of the notification of arrest, but the police stopped him," they said. "Now Yu Wensheng's family need to find a lawyer to help him, but a lot of lawyers have been warned off doing this by the authorities."
They said police had also told the family not to try to find their own lawyer to represent the couple.
Another person familiar with the case, who gave only the surname Shi, confirmed the friend's account.
"They wouldn't let their [18-year-old] kid instruct a lawyer, and the police were also telling people that Yu Wensheng didn't want a lawyer, and that Xu Yan had already hired two lawyers," Shi said.
"Then the police visited the law firms [that might potentially represent Yu and Xu] and put pressure on them -- the Beijing municipal judicial affairs bureau also stepped up the pressure, threatening the law firms that they would fail their annual license review," he said.
"I don't know whether they actually revoked any licenses or not -- we won't know until early June," Shi said.
A friend of the couple who gave only the surname Qin said he is worried about their situation, and also about their son, who is living alone in the family home under strict police surveillance, with no contact with the outside world.
"It has destroyed this family, and their kid is still so young with nobody around to take care of them -- it's wrong to arrest both husband and wife together," Qin said.
The European Union lodged a protest with China after police detained veteran rights lawyer Yu Wensheng and his activist wife Xu Yan ahead of a meeting with its diplomats during a scheduled EU-China human rights dialogue on April 13.
“We have already been taken away,” Yu tweeted shortly before falling silent on April 13, while the EU delegation to China tweeted on April 14: “@yuwensheng9 and @xuyan709 detained by CN authorities on their way to EU Delegation.”
“We demand their immediate, unconditional release. We have lodged a protest with MFA against this unacceptable treatment,” the tweet from the EU’s embassy in China said, referring to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.