Wang Yu
In this March 1, 2014, photo, well-known Chinese human rights lawyer Wang Yu gives an interview to Reuters in Beijing. Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon

A sweeping crackdown on China’s human rights lawyers has left 20 people still in custody, six of which were considered to be missing. Earlier this month, at least 238 human rights lawyers and legal assistants were detained by Beijing authorities, and the situation caused widespread concern over a deteriorating human rights environment in China.

The crackdown began on July 9 with the detention of Wang Yu, a well-known human rights attorney known for defending high-profile cases, such as the five Chinese feminists who were detained earlier this year. In the two weeks following Wang Yu’s detention, hundreds of others have also been detained, according to the Hong Kong-based advocacy group China Human Rights Lawyer Concern Group, which has been keeping track of arrests and detentions. While most of the 200-plus lawyers who were part of the round-up have been released, observers remain concerned about the 20 who are still in custody or have not been heard from.

Of the 14 still detained, eight were being held under criminal charges, three under “designated residential surveillance” and three under other forms of police custody. Those who are missing, which includes a trainee lawyer and a legal assistant, have not been seen since July 10, following Wang Yu’s detention, according to the Guardian, citing the advocacy group.

“We just really don’t know [what happened to them],” Maya Wang, a China researcher for Human Rights Watch reported. Wang says that while some may have gone into hiding, others are at risk of ill treatment and torture at the detention centers they are likely still being held at.

“Detaining anyone incommunicado and in secret leaves them at high risk of torture or ill treatment, especially when they are detained on politicized charges,” said Sophie Richardson, the China director of Human Rights Watch. “Beijing’s blatant failure to guarantee even basic protections for these individuals demonstrates the government’s extraordinary disdain for rule of law.”

Beijing has evaded accusations of further restricting Chinese civil rights.

“Critics should first get the facts right, get to the bottom of the problem before embarrassing themselves in another unavailing episode of finger-pointing,” an editorial posted by state-run Xinhua News Agency argued, adding that the detentions are the result of “legitimate law-enforcement action” that “should not be interpreted as a human rights issue.”