The victims of China's 'War on Law' crackdown

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Media captionThe wives accuse authorities of curtailing freedoms in China

There are plenty of places from which a piece of journalism could be written to mark United Nations Human Rights Day.

But the raising of concern by the UN this week over the case of the missing lawyer Jiang Tianyong makes Beijing as good a choice as any.

Chen Guiqiu was the one of the last known people to see Mr Jiang, in November.

Image copyright Chen Guiqiu
Image caption Ms Chen (far right) is seen here with Mr Jiang (second from left) and other local lawyers in this photo taken last month

"He came to my home in Changsha to learn about my husband's case," she tells me.

"We went to the detention centre together. After he left, he just went missing. We haven't heard from him since."

Ms Chen is herself a powerful illustration of what is widely regarded as a deteriorating human rights situation in China.

Her husband, Xie Yang, disappeared in July 2015 along with dozens of other lawyers, legal assistants and activists as part of a sweeping crackdown against human rights advocates.

"It's because he worked on lots of sensitive cases, demolition, forced relocation, that kind of thing," she says.

"All cases in which people are trying to fight against the government."

It was more than a year before any lawyer was given access to Mr Xie, reportedly finding him to be suffering from head wounds as a result of beatings by guards.

Image copyright Chen Guiqiu
Image caption Xie Yang went missing in July 2015
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Media captionBeijing's crackdown on human rights lawyers

Now Jiang Tianyong, the man who was hoping to help with the case, is also feared to have disappeared into a legal black hole - becoming the latest victim of China's so-called War on Law.

UN Human Rights Day falls on 10 December, commemorating the date on which the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

Mr Jiang had often found himself devoid of that protection over the years, allegedly tortured on occasion by state security services as a result of his work defending high profile and sensitive human rights cases.

This time, the UN suspects, he has been detained because of it.

In August he met the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, during his visit to China.

Earlier this week Mr Alston expressed concern that the disappearance might be linked to that meeting.

"The international standards are clear: states must refrain from and protect all persons from acts of reprisal," the UN quotes Mr Alston as saying.

Despite legal protections written into Chinese law for detained suspects, there are wide loopholes in cases involving "national security."

It means the authorities are able to hold suspects for months on end, without access to lawyers or family members.

And when those family members attempt to seek justice on their behalf, they too run the risk of punitive reprisals.

Image copyright Wang Qiaoling
Image caption Li Heping is among several lawyers who have been detained

Seeking answers

In a restaurant in Beijing I meet with three other wives also campaigning for news of their detained lawyer husbands.

Wang Qiaoling, Li Wenzu and Yuan Shanshan have not seen their husbands, nor had any direct contact with them, since last July's crackdown.

"We've heard nothing since he was arrested," Ms Li says of her husband Wang Quanzhang.

"He was denied rights to meet his lawyer, we've had no information and we couldn't even write letters to him."

"They've chased us out of rented flats," she goes on. "All my local kindergartens have been instructed not to take my four-year-old child."

"We've been detained and beaten and our activities are being monitored."

Image caption Li Wenzu (left) spoke of how her family was harassed after her husband's disappearance

After a quick breakfast they walk to the Supreme Prosecutor's Appeals and Petitions Office to submit a formal request for answers about their husbands' cases and to plead for due process to be followed.

We follow them but are soon stopped from filming, so we meet up with the women a short time later outside a subway station.

They have submitted their petitions - although supporting documents were rejected - and they hold out little hope.

"They told us to trust the justice system," Wang Qiaoling says.

"The security guards treated us very rudely," Yuan Shanshan tells me. "They treated us like enemies, taking off our hats, scarves and coats, and inspecting us very carefully."

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Media captionYuan Shanshan, wife of human rights lawyer Xie Yanyi, has not seen her husband for a year

China, in its evidence to the UN, has denied allegations of torture.

It specifically denied one such allegation of torturing Jiang Tianyong during a hearing last year.

And it often appeals to the argument that it is wrong to judge it by the "Western" concepts of human rights, pointing to the huge strides that have been made in tackling poverty over the past few decades.

But while China's rapid development has indeed produced many winners, there are many losers too.

'War on Law'

As the three wives arrive at the petitions office there are, as always, large numbers of other aggrieved individuals, clutching bundles of paper, hoping to seek redress for their own injustices that are often years old.

One man shows me his claim for compensation as the result of an industrial accident.

A mother burst into tears while showing me a photo of her son who she claims was killed in police custody.

And as China continues to grow richer, critics attempt to turn the Communist Party's argument on its head.

As the world's second largest economy plays an increasing role on the global stage, they suggest, it is more important than ever that it develops a system whereby the arbitrary use of authority can be held to account.

Which is why, on UN Human Rights day, it is worth pausing to reflect on China's so-called War on Law.

"Our economy is growing fast," Chen Guiqiu, wife of the detained lawyer Xie Yang tells me.

"But the problems that exist at the bottom of the society still need attention from people like our husbands. The government should see this as helpful for society."

"Unfortunately, they don't."

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