BEIJING - A prominent Chinese human rights lawyer has "confessed guilt" a week after being detained in a major crackdown on legal activists, state media said.
Zhou Shifeng is one of more than 130 lawyers detained or called in for questioning by state security bodies this month, according to tallies by rights groups.
The lawyer provided legal aid to families of children poisoned by milk powder from a powerful dairy firm, and this year defended an 81-year-old writer detained for criticising the ruling Communist party.
Zhou has reportedly not been able to meet a family-appointed defence lawyer. The official Xinhua news agency said late Saturday that he "admitted guilt" and pleaded for a "second chance".
"Some things about my actions at the law firm were illegal... my mistakes were serious," the report cited Zhou as saying, apparently while in police custody.
Xinhua said nine other lawyers connected to Zhou's law firm Fengrui had been detained along with several associates, but did not specify what crime they are suspected of committing.
The detained lawyers "gave interviews to foreign media, spreading opinions attacking the party and the government, slandering the legal system and other such negative views," it added.
State broadcaster CCTV on Sunday showed "confessions" from Zhou and several colleagues in a report lasting nearly 40 minutes.
It said the lawyers had been detained after repeatedly "creating a nuisance" in court by arguing, making recordings and taking photographs.
Other "violations" highlighted by CCTV included lawyers organising protesters to demonstrate outside courthouses, and raising money online to fight cases.
Those held include female lawyer Wang Yu, known for defending poverty-stricken victims of forced demolition, sexual assault, detention in mental hospitals and other abuses.
CCTV showed Wang raising her voice and pointing at officials in court during a hearing. It quoted a soft-spoken female court official as saying her behaviour had "not showed legal spirit".
In an apparent effort to pressure Wang's family, her 16-year-old son has been questioned several times in the past week by police in the city of Tianjin, a family friend told AFP.
Police are stationed outside the apartment of Wang's parents in the city and follow the family whenever they go out, said the friend who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals.
'Heaviest crackdown yet'
China's courts have a near-100 per cent conviction rate. State media said last year that the use of torture by police to extract confessions was "not rare" in the country.
The ruling party says it hopes to promote the rule of law, and a growing number of lawyers over the past decade have attempted to expose official abuses using the courts.
But President Xi Jinping has stressed the party's ultimate authority over the legal system, and limits on activism have tightened, with dozens jailed.
Rights lawyers previously faced physical attacks, house arrest and prison sentences but analysts see the latest crackdown as the heaviest yet.
More than 200 legal activists have been targeted by police since July 9, according to Britain-based Amnesty International.
They include at least 130 lawyers, according to tallies by activists in China.
Zhou's family has appointed lawyer Yang Jinzhu to act as a defence attorney but police have not allowed him to meet his client, the Hong Kong-based advocacy group Rights Defence Network reported.
State media frequently reports "confessions" from criminal suspects detained without access to lawyers.
State media has branded the Fengrui legal firm a "criminal organisation" whose lawyers had "staged open defiance inside the courtroom and on the Internet".
The law firm had helped defend Ilham Tohti, an academic jailed for life last year for criticising government policy in the troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang.
In a commentary published on Saturday, Xinhua said China "must lock up lawyers who break their vows".
"In the available police accounts of what the suspects did, there was one particularly disturbing thing: the lawyers were suspected of sponsoring and organising protests supporting their clients," it added.
Three of the activists currently being held face 15-year jail sentences on charges of "inciting subversion of state power", according to police notices seen by friends of the detainees in the past week.
The activists being held include attorney Xie Yang, who sought compensation for the family of a man shot dead in May by police at a train station in northeast China.
The incident sparked an online outcry about violence by law enforcers.