BEIJING : At least 50 Chinese human rights lawyers and activists have been detained or questioned in recent days in an ‘unprecedented’ police swoop, rights groups said Saturday, with around 20 still feared to be held.

‘More than 50 lawyers and activists were targeted by police in a nationwide crackdown,’ Amnesty International said in a statement. ‘All the individuals missing since the crackdown began on Thursday 9 July are well-known for their work on human rights cases,’ it added.

The best known was Li Heping, who was taken away from his home on Friday after what the New York Times described as a police search and the seizure of his computers. Li had defended blind dissident Chen Guangcheng after Chen infuriated authorities in Shandong province by exposing forced abortions and sterilisations under China’s one-child-only policy.

The scale of the clampdown on the legal profession began to emerge when a friend of lawyers and staff at a single Beijing law firm known for its human rights casework said at least five had been detained in the last couple of days. ‘(They) were taken away by police for some ‘investigation’... and they were not accused yet,’ fellow lawyer and close associate Zhang Qingfang told AFP.

All worked at Beijing Fengrui, a legal practice most recently in the news for taking on the case of Zhang Miao, a Chinese journalist detained for nine months after helping a German magazine report on democracy protests in Hong Kong. Zhang’s brother and a family friend said state security had detained her lawyer Zhou Shifeng on Friday, the day of her release, covering his head as they hustled him out of a Beijing hotel.

Fears were also raised for Wang Yu, another prominent Chinese rights defender at the firm, who had texted friends on Thursday to say her Internet connection was severed, before adding that unknown individuals were attempting to break into her home.

A legal assistant of Zhou’s and an accountant at the firm had also disappeared along with the two lawyers, Zhang said. Amnesty said earlier at least seven people working at the firm were known to be in the hands of the authorities or had failed to make contact with relatives in recent days. ‘Wang Yu disappeared the day before yesterday, and no one has any indication where she is now,’ William Nee, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Amnesty, told AFP.