A Chinese lawyer was forcibly taken away Friday just hours after his client, a Chinese journalist working for a German weekly, was released from nine months in detention, his associate said.

Zhou Shifeng was taken by three unidentified men from a hotel where he stayed after picking up journalist Zhang Miao from a detention center in a Beijing suburb, his law partner Liu Xiaoyuan said.

The law firm also lost contact with three other employees on Friday, Liu said. Another prominent rights lawyer at the same firm, Wang Yu, and her family have been out of touch since Thursday morning after she sent a message saying that someone was prying open the lock on her door.

A faxed request to Beijing police for information on their location was not immediately answered.

Friends and associates said at least five other lawyers and activists have either disappeared or been detained by police, raising concerns that Chinese authorities are targeting rights lawyers in a crackdown on civil society and rights activism. State media have been accusing rights layers of stirring up trouble and sabotaging China's legal system.

Zhou, who spoke to The Associated Press on Thursday, said he had argued with prosecutors that the evidence against Zhang, a news assistant for the German weekly Die Zeit, was obtained through coercion and torture and should be considered illegal.

"We had expected her release because we believed the evidence was invalid and could not be used," Zhou said. He said Zhang was subjected to sleep deprivation and intimidation during her detention.

Zhang was released along with three artists, all of whom had been detained since October when they were planning to attend a poetry reading in support of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

Zhang, who helped with Die Zeit's coverage of the protests, was initially detained on a disturbance charge. Her detention highlights the precarious situation for Chinese citizens working for foreign media, who often become targets of police harassment and intimidation. Angela Koeckritz, the Beijing correspondent for Die Zeit, left China after she also felt pressure from authorities following Zhang's detention.

Die Zeit's deputy editor-in-chief, Moritz Mueller-Wirth, said Koeckritz was informed on Thursday of Zhang's planned release.

"We are very glad and thank from the bottom of our hearts everyone who contributed in the last few months to this solution," he said in an emailed statement, without giving details.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman also welcomed Zhang's release, saying that the government had pushed for her freedom at various levels over recent months. "This release is a step in the right direction," Steffen Seibert said.

Seibert added that Germany views "with concern" the fact that Gao Yu, who once worked for German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, is still in custody. "We are repeating our call for Ms. Gao also to be released," he said.