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BEIJING (Reuters) - One of China's most prominent human rights lawyers, Li Fangping, remains missing three days after he called his wife to say he was being led away by state security police, apparently the latest target of a crackdown on dissent.
Li disappeared Friday, the same day that Chinese authorities released his friend and fellow rights lawyer, Teng Biao, whose secretive detention for over two months was raised in Beijing last week by Michael Posner, the United States' top diplomat on human rights.
Li, a slightly built and gently spoken Beijing lawyer who has taken on many politically contentious cases, appears to be another target of the Chinese Communist Party's campaign to stifle dissent, which has led to the arrest, detention or informal jailing of dozens of dissidents, human rights advocates and grassroots agitators.
"There's been no news about him since Friday. The police have not given me any information," Li's wife told Reuters by telephone. She asked only that her surname, Zheng, be cited, fearing that giving her full name would bring more pressure.
Zheng said Li had first called her to say he was heading home Friday afternoon, but then called again.
"He called then to say, 'There are state security police downstairs and they are going to take me away. I won't be coming home now, eat dinner by yourself'," she said.
Zheng said she tried calling him back, and heard Li telling someone he was speaking to his wife. Then the call cut off, and later the phone was turned off, she said.
"The reported disappearance of high-profile human rights lawyer Li Fangping the very same day that Teng Biao was released suggests that security forces are conducting a carefully planned assault on outspoken human rights defenders," Phelim Kine, Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, a New York based advocacy group, said in an emailed comment.
Li has defended dissidents, including Hu Jia, who was 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.
Li has also challenged Internet censorship and represented an activist campaigning for children poisoned by adulterated milk powder. In 2006, he and another lawyer were beaten by thugs while trying to represent Chen Guangcheng, a rights campaigner in eastern Shandong province who was later jailed.
Beijing's alarm about dissent intensified after overseas Chinese websites in February spread calls for protests across China inspired by the "Jasmine Revolution" of anti-authoritarian uprisings across the Arab world.
Li had not been secretively taken away this before, his wife, Zheng, said. "That's why I'm worried -- the uncertainty," she said. "There's the worry that he was actually taken away by criminal types who are taking revenge for the rights defense cases he took on."
The Yangfangdian Police Station in western Beijing, where Zheng said she reported Li's disappearance, would not answer inquiries about his case, with calls going unanswered or being cut off.
Shortly before his disappearance, Li had been discussing a case of claimed employment discrimination mounted by a worker with hepatitis, said Lu Jun, a health rights advocate who was working with Li on the case.
"Our rights defense work is suffering because lawyers are under pressure and face many demands even when they do take on cases," said Lu. "Some pull out even after signing agreements, because the pressure is too much."
Reporting by Chris Buckley, editing by Miral Fahmy