Chinese police push back journalists and supporters of human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang
Beijing - AFP
One of China's most celebrated human rights lawyers was tried on Monday over online comments critical of the ruling Communist Party, as police scuffled with supporters and journalists outside the courthouse.
Pu Zhiqiang, who has represented labour camp victims and dissident artist Ai Weiwei, was detained a year and a half ago in a nationwide crackdown on dissent.
He faces a maximum of eight years in jail on charges of "inciting ethnic hatred" and "picking quarrels and provoking trouble", according to his lawyer Mo Shaoping.
In a trial that lasted less than four hours, another defence lawyer Si Weijiang said Beijing's Number Two Intermediate People's Court considered the evidence -- seven posts Pu made on a microblog between 2011 and 2014.
No verdict was immediately issued.
In the comments, Pu said that China did not need Communist rule, writing: "Other than secrecy, cheating, passing the buck, delay, the hammer and sickle, what kinds of secrets of governance does this party have?"
He also condemned government policy in the mainly Muslim far western region of Xinjiang as "absurd" in the wake of a bloody knife attack blamed on separatists that killed 31 people at a train station in Kunming.
"Don’t be a conqueror or a plunderer," he wrote. "No matter whether your aggression is a preemptive measure or a responsive measure, it’s all aggression. It’s all about making the other side your enemy."
Dozens of supporters travelled from across the country, some for thousands of kilometres, to protest outside the courtroom.
Police repeatedly clashed with them, with officers and men in civilian dress -- identified by "smiley face" stickers on their clothing -- pushing them hundreds of metres away.
The crowd shouted "Pu Zhiqiang! Innocent!" before being broken up by police who said they had obstructed the pavement.
Authorities dragged at least three people away, an AFP reporter at the scene saw.
They pushed and shouted at senior US diplomat Dan Biers so forcefully as he tried to read a statement condemning the trial that the scrum around him had relocate multiple times.
"Lawyers and civil society leaders such as Mr Pu should not be subject to continuing repression but should be allowed to contribute to the building of a prosperous and stable China," Biers said.
"We urge Chinese authorities to release Mr Pu and call upon China to uphold fundamental civil rights."
A diplomat from the European Union mission was also pushed and shouted down as he delivered a statement criticising the process.
"When you come to China, you need to respect China's laws," one officer told foreign journalists as he punched his way forward.
- 'Bear witness' -
Pu, 50, is the latest person to be tried in a crackdown on critics of the Communist Party overseen by President Xi Jinping, which has seen hundreds detained and dozens sent to prison.
He is virtually certain to be convicted in the Communist-controlled court.
A former client of his, Xie Sunming, told AFP: "Sure, they won't let us into the courtroom, but that's not what's important. I'm here to support Pu Zhiqiang, a good man who helped me immensely."
Xie was sentenced to a year in a labour camp in 2009 for posting a single 20-character sentence on an online forum accusing a local government official of corrupt business ties.
He spent a year in a mountain detention centre working over nine hours a day to make electronic computer parts, pocketing just eight yuan (now $1.24) a month.
He drove 20 hours from Chongqing in southwestern China to stand outside the Beijing courthouse, saying he and a friend "had to sneak out and drive all night", unable to travel by air or train for fear of being detained.
Yao Lianshe, a citizen who attends as many trials as he can despite frequent police harassment, told AFP: "China has too few good lawyers -- he was one of the few."
"Nothing in China will ever change for the better unless the people are unafraid to stand up to authority and bear witness."