- Hundreds of Chinese lawyers and activists detained last year
- 23 charged with crimes including 'subversion of state power'
- Wives of three detained lawyers say they won't be cowed into not speaking out
Hong Kong (CNN)"We're not allowed to speak out."
But they are. The wives of three detained Chinese human rights lawyers have released a defiant video demanding the release of their husbands and calling on the U.S. and other countries to pressure Beijing.
"After the authorities locked up our loved ones illegally, they told us to follow their rules," says Wang Qialing, the wife of Li Heping, a prominent Chinese human rights lawyer who was arrested -- along with hundreds of other activists and lawyers -- in July 2015.
Those rules included not hiring their own lawyers, not communicating with the relatives of other detainees, not talking to the media, and not speaking out online.
"Facing these illegal and groundless requirements from the government, we as family members didn't give in," Wang says.
In the July crackdown, dozens of lawyers and activists were detained and interrogated by police in more than 24 Chinese cities and provinces, according to the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, a Hong Kong-based monitor.
According to the group, 23 people have been formally arrested since then, with another 12 released on bail. The U.N. has called the crackdown a "very worrying pattern."
At the time, Chinese police defended the massive round-up, telling state media they targeted a "criminal gang" suspected of illegally organizing paid protests.
China's Ministry of Public Security did not respond to a request to comment.
Those arrested include Li Heping, Xie Yanyi and Wang Quanzhang, whose wives made the video. Li and Wang are being held on suspicion of "subverting state power," which potentially carries a life sentence, while Xie is being investigated for the lesser crime of "inciting subversion of state power."
Xie's wife Yuan said that since their husbands' arrest, family members have faced pressure from police to accept lawyers assigned by the government and fire counsel they had retained themselves.
"(They also) tried to get us to speak on camera to persuade our detained family members to plead guilty," she said.
"We all refused to do so."
The video was released through the U.S. Congressional Executive Commission on China (CECC), following a recent hearing on Beijing's cracking down on critics beyond China's borders.
During that hearing, Angela Gui, whose father was one of several Hong Kong booksellers to disappear late last year before reemerging in mainland China to apparently confess to unrelated crimes on state TV, urged the U.S. not to let China get away with "illegal abductions."
Wang, Yuan, and Wang Quanzhang's wife Wei Wenzu, called on the U.S. to "please ask the Chinese government to release unconditionally all the citizens and lawyers detained (in the July crackdown)."
"The human rights lawyers, the free press advocates, and those fighting for labor rights, religious freedom, and democracy are the best hope for China's future," Representative Chris Smith, CECC co-chair, said in a statement.
Amnesty International researcher William Nee told CNN the family members are turning to the international community for help because they're "out of other viable options."
"The government claims these lawyers were troublemakers undermining the rule of law, when in fact, the lawyers were using the law to defend vulnerable clients, while the government is not adhering to its own laws in allowing family visits and legal representation."