BEIJING (Reuters) - China released a prominent human rights lawyer, Li Fangping, after six days in secretive detention, he said on Thursday, while another lawyer disappeared, targets of a crackdown that critics said is seeking to silence "rights defenders".
Li was freed on Wednesday afternoon. He had called his wife last Friday and said he was being taken away by state security police, the latest of dozens of rights advocates and dissidents to be detained, arrested or put in secretive extra-judicial custody in recent months.
Following a pattern of other human rights advocates who have been released from detention, Li declined to speak about his disappearance. "I was released yesterday. That's all I can say, sorry," he said by telephone.
China's ruling Communist Party has mounted a clampdown on dissent, fearing that anti-authoritarian uprisings across the Arab world could trigger unrest.
The Obama administration says it will raise concerns about the crackdown next week at the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Washington, when top-level officials talk about economic ties, currency issues and international security.
The detentions of Li and disappearance on Wednesday of another lawyer, Li Xiongbing, showed the crackdown was entering a new phase aimed at silencing a hitherto vocal network of "rights defenders", said Phelim Kine, Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group.
"This pattern of blatantly unlawful behaviour suggests a de facto policy of drip-feed repression hinged on intimidation and fear," Kine said in a comment sent by email.
"The intent of these targeted disappearances appears to be twofold: silence perceived dissidents and spread fear throughout China's legal community and nascent civil society that no one is safe, the law won't protect them and that at any time they might be the next victims."
The lawyer Li Xiongbing has not been in contact with his family since Wednesday afternoon, when he told his wife that "the situation was a bit strange", she said.
"I haven't heard from him since then," his wife, Wu Haiying said by telephone. "He had told me not to panic if something like this happens and to tell his family, his parents, that he was away on business."
Wu said she had not reported the disappearance to police.
Li Fangping and Li Xiongbing are members of a loose network of human rights lawyers that emerged a decade ago, using a mix of litigation, publicity and lobbying to challenge arbitrary detention, restrictions on speech and other limits on citizens. The two lawyers are not related.
For a few years, that "rights defence" campaign scored some successes, and helped defend dissidents and protesters facing trial for challenging Communist Party rule.
Li Xiongbing has represented dissidents and worked on behalf of Gongmeng, a rights group that has campaigned against illicit jailing of petitioners and other contentious decisions.
Li Fangping has defended dissidents, including Hu Jia, jailed for three and a half years in 2008 for "inciting subversion of state power," a charge often used to punish outspoken critics of Communist Party rule.
That "rights defence" movement now faces pressure as the party pushes back against activism. Most lawyers have remained silent after being released. They include Teng Biao and Jiang Tianyong, recently released after weeks in secretive detention.
Editing by Ken Wills and Ron Popeski