BEIJING - Chinese prosecutors could upgrade the charges against a prominent human rights lawyer, saying that he incited "ethnic hatred and discrimination" when he wrote a microblog post criticising the government's account of a mass knife attack, his lawyer said on Thursday.
The new charges against Pu Zhiqiang add to evidence that the case against him is politically motivated, his supporters say. They come amid what rights groups say is the most severe clampdown on human rights in decades.
Pu, one of China's most outspoken dissidents, was arrested in June on charges of causing a disturbance and illegally accessing personal information in a case that drew international condemnation.
Prosecutors are considering adding charges of inciting ethnic hatred and discrimination and separatism, a more serious crime, said Pu's lawyer, Mo Shaoping. He said he was less certain of the more serious separatism charge. "That charge (of separatism) is extremely unusual," Mo said.
Mo said the charge of inciting ethnic hatred and discrimination stem from a blog post Pu wrote about a violent attack in the southwestern city of Kunming that killed 29 people in March. China blamed the attack on Islamist militants, sometimes referred to as East Turkestan separatists, who it says seek to split the country by seeking an independent state in the country's far west region of Xinjiang. "You (the party) just give me one line - extremely heavy casualties with too brutal consequences - but to say you bear no responsibility for Xinjiang separatists' cruelty, I am not satisfied with that," Pu wrote in his March 2 microblog post.
Inciting ethnic hatred or discrimination carries a prison sentence of up to three to ten years in serious cases.
Authorities have transferred Pu's case to prosecutors who now have to decide how to proceed.
Pu, 49, a free-speech lawyer, has represented many well-known dissidents, including artist Ai Weiwei and activists of the "New Citizens' Movement", a group that has called on Chinese leaders to make their wealth public.
He also opposed forced labour camps, which the government has abolished, and he was featured prominently in state media for that campaign - unusual for a government critic.
Pu was detained in May after he attended a meeting in a private home to commemorate the bloody suppression of pro-democracy protests in and around Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Police could not be reached for comment.