US urges China to reinstate licences for Ren Quanniu and Lu Siwei, who represented pro-democracy activists from Hong Kong.

A second Chinese lawyer who represented a Hong Kong pro-democracy activist has been stripped of his licence to practice, in a move that drew alarm from rights groups and condemnation from the United States.

Ren Quanniu, who represented one of 12 Hong Kong activists who allegedly tried to flee by boat to Taiwan, said on Tuesday that he had had his licence revoked by the Henan Provincial Justice Department.

Lu Siwei, who worked alongside Ren on the case, had his licence taken away last month.

Ren and Lu said that representing the members of the so-called “Hong Kong 12” was the trigger that stripped them of the right to practise.

The 12 activists attempted to flee Hong Kong after China imposed a sweeping national security law on the territory. They were caught at sea in August and after being held for months without access to family 10 of them were sentenced by a Shenzhen court in December to prison terms ranging from seven months to three years for crossing the border illegally and organising the escape. Two others, who were under the age of 18, were returned to the custody of the Hong Kong police.

Thousands of Hong Kong residents have fled the territory since Beijing imposed the security legislation last June to quell dissent in the semi-autonomous city. More than 90 people have been arrested for national security-related offences so far, according to Hong Kong Commissioner of Police Chris Tang and eight people have been charged, including the media tycoon Jimmy Lai, a prominent campaigner for democracy.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Ned Price said the US was “deeply concerned” about the move to disbar the two lawyers.

“We urge Beijing to respect human rights and the rule of law and to reinstate their legal credentials at once,” Price wrote on Twitter.

The Henan Judicial Department held a hearing on the licence revocation on Friday in Zhengzhou, the provincial capital, according to other lawyers who turned up to support Ren. They were not allowed into the hearing.

Ren was told that comments he made in court in a case in 2018 defending Falun Gong practitioners had caused a “negative impact on society,” according to a notice from the Henan Justice Department that he showed to the media.

He told the AFP news agency the accusations against him were “groundless”.

“If my licence could be revoked in such circumstances, I think China’s legal system is dead,” he said. “Lawyers should be clearly aware that referencing the law and facts in court may be dangerous in the future.”

Ren has years of experience in handling politically charged human rights cases in China.

He has defended people affiliated with the Falun Gong, a spiritual movement which China has labelled a cult which has come under attack since its followers protested in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1999.

Most recently, he represented citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, who was sentenced to four years in prison last December for attempting to report on the situation in the city of Wuhan during the onset of the coronavirus pandemic early last year.

Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an NGO coalition, expressed concern over Ren and Lu’s disbarment.

“Persecuted activists and critics of the government are unlikely to find any lawyers to defend their legal rights these days,” it said.

“Human rights lawyers (in China) face renewed zeal by authorities to debar them.”

Frontline Defenders, a human rights group based in Ireland, called the action against Ren “unacceptable” and said it was “further evidence that the “Chinese government’s commitment to rule of law is not genuine”.

More than a dozen Chinese rights lawyers have had their licences cancelled or revoked in recent years in what activists have said is an effective silencing by authorities.