BEIJING — Just half a year ago, civil rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang was earning accolades in the Chinese media for his work pushing for the abolition of labor camps. On Friday, Pu made headlines again — but this time for being arrested by Beijing police on charges that fellow activists say are trumped up in an attempt to silence the vocal government critic.
The dramatic turnaround highlights the thin line that activist lawyers often find themselves having to walk if they seek to drum up public support for causes that embarrass the ruling Communist Party: success can come at great personal cost.
"I feel that this is a form of political suppression," said Si Weijiang, a close friend and lawyer who has worked with Pu on several prominent cases in recent years. "Because Pu Zhiqiang is someone who dares to do and dares to speak. He's an outspoken person and they want to put pressure on people like him."
Pu, 50, is the closest a person gets to being a celebrity lawyer in China, where defense attorneys who take on sensitive cases are often shunned by the heavily censored state-controlled media. Yet Pu has been on the covers of Chinese magazines and earned awards for his work, most recently in lobbying against the much-despised labor camps.
All this, despite being also known for representing the dissident artist Ai Weiwei, defending free speech and speaking up for Communist Party officials tortured in a secretive internal detention system.
Pu's arrest, announced by Beijing's Public Security Bureau on its microblog website, is being seen by activists as part of an effort by Chinese authorities to rein in outspoken public intellectuals who have harnessed social media and other platforms to raise awareness about civic rights.
He was actively engaged on China's popular Twitter-like microblog sites, posting updates on politically sensitive trials and questioning the party's legitimacy. Censors frequently deleted his accounts and his posts, forcing him to set up new ones which quickly attracted followers, often in the thousands — before they got shut down again.
Chinese political analyst Zhang Lifan said Pu's campaign for the abolition of labor camps might have angered officials who had previously benefited from the system, and embarrassed them by exposing how arbitrarily it was used to lock people away without trial. The cases Pu and Si represented often generated public outrage over abuses by local officials.
When party leaders announced a decision to shut down labor camps last year, the lawyers were credited in the media with providing the catalyst for liberal-minded officials to push through urgently needed changes that might otherwise have stalled.
"Because the cases he handled often involve the freedom of citizens, I think no matter what problems he is facing now, his past record shows he has made contributions to judicial progress in China," Zhang said.
But Pu seemed aware of the risks of his work. Speaking at a forum at a Japanese university in February, Pu said: "If it is said that I played a little role in the movement to abolish re-education through labor, then I should not be at all smug about such a thing. I should take preventive measures and should think that in the future there might be problems with my own security."
Police said Pu was arrested on suspicion of "creating a disturbance" and "illegally obtaining personal information." It did not provide details, but the former offense, a kind of public disorder crime, has been widely used to prosecute activists in recent months. Si, Pu's friend, said the accusations were groundless.
His lawyer, Zhang Sizhi, a veteran rights attorney, confirmed the arrest when reached by phone but declined to provide details on what the charges could involve, saying it was at Pu's request.
The police bureau said investigations into other alleged crimes were ongoing, an indication that Pu could eventually face more charges.
Pu's most recent cause was one that most lawyers would not touch: the party's internal interrogation system for officials accused of corruption. Known as "shuanggui," in practice, it's a shady form of detention without trial that subjects Communist Party members to torture due to the secrecy surrounding the system.
In the eastern city of Wenzhou, one such party member died from torture in this system. His wife, Wu Qian, said she looked all over the city but no lawyer would represent her. Pu and Si offered to help — and their efforts to generate publicity were instrumental in forcing authorities to respond, she said.
"After the first reports about my husband's death, the local media stopped reporting what was happening to us because they had been instructed not to. Pu Zhiqiang helped me contact major news organizations and their reports helped to create pressure for the government," Wu said. Months later, several of the interrogators who tortured Wu's husband were brought to trial and sentenced to jail.
But what little tolerance the authorities have had of Pu's brand of activism might be waning if a commentary about Pu by the Communist Party-run Global Times newspaper in early May is any indication.
"These activist lawyers, who have wild intentions to challenge and change the law, have deviated from their own job scope. They are more like social activists rather than legal practitioners," it said.
Pu was one of several activists who were detained in early May after attending a small, private meeting in Beijing to discuss the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on protesters ahead of its 25th anniversary, a taboo subject in China. The others were released earlier.
Because of his national profile, Pu became a symbol of the most expansive security sweep in recent years to prevent public commemorations of the deadly military crackdown on June 4, 1989.