China has said it would revoke the licences of two human-rights lawyers involved in the case of 12 Hong Kongers whom mainland authorities arrested at sea and accused of trying to flee to Taiwan, according to the two lawyers.
One of them, Ren Quanniu, said mainland authorities warned him in September, telling him that taking on the case could imperil his licence. The lawyers said they had received letters on Monday about revoking their licences, and were given three days to appeal. Both said they intended to do so.
Families of two of the defendants appointed Ren and Lu Siwei to represent them, but the lawyers were denied access.
The 12 were represented in court by lawyers appointed by mainland authorities.
China's Ministry of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Both lawyers have been critical of China's legal process, and say the licence threat is linked to the case of the Hong Kongers, which drew criticism from international rights groups and foreign governments.
Ren also recently represented Zhang Zhan, a citizen-journalist sentenced to four years in prison over her reporting on the coronavirus in Wuhan.
Ten of the 12 Hong Kongers were sentenced last week by a court in Shenzhen to between seven months and three years in prison for illegal border crossing, while the two youngest were returned to Hong Kong for trial on charges related to anti-government protests last year.
The letters were issued by the jurisdictions where the lawyers are based. If the lose their licences, they will be unable to practice law in China.
In a letter from the justice department of Sichuan province seen by Reuters, Lu was accused of "making multiple inappropriate remarks online" over a long period of time, "severely damaging the image of the industry" and "causing negative impacts on society."
"I have no regrets," he told Reuters.
Ren, 40, showed Reuters a letter from the Henan province justice department accusing him of violating regulations over a case he took in 2018 representing a defendant in a religious matter.
The Henan justice department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Sichuan justice department could not immediately be reached for comment.
Ren said that a local lawyers association, the local justice department, and local national security officers had pressured him to drop the Hong Kong case in September, warning after an initial attempt to visit the detainee that his licence was at stake.
The family of detainee Wong Wai-yin, who hired Ren, said they were "appalled" by the news.
Human rights lawyers in China are routinely targeted with jail terms and disbarment, and rights groups say such pressure has intensified in recent years under a crackdown on dissent under President Xi Jinping.