Police have scuffled with protesters at a Beijing courthouse as prominent Chinese human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang stood trial on charges of provoking trouble and stirring ethnic hatred.
He is accused over commentaries posted online that were critical of the ruling Communist Party.
Chinese protesters and foreign rights groups said Pu’s trial at the No 2 Beijing Intermediate Court amounted to political persecution, and foreign governments called for his release.
The trial concluded about midday local time, and Pu’s lawyer Shang Baojun said a verdict and sentence would be delivered at a later date.
“Pu Zhiqiang is a lawyer with a conscience,” activist Yang Qiuyu said in a brief interview outside the venue while a policeman tried to grab him. “This is why he is now under arrest. We support him, and that means that we are also defending our own rights.”
Pu was active in defending free speech and represented dissident artist Ai Weiwei in a tax evasion case that Ai’s supporters said was politically motivated.
He has been critical of the government’s policies in the ethnic Muslim region of Xinjiang, and was instrumental in pushing for the eventual abolishment of the labour camp system, which allowed police to lock up people for up to four years without a trial.
About 50 protesters had gathered at the courthouse along with a couple dozen journalists and about a dozen Western diplomats, but all of them were denied entrance.
Police and plainclothes security officers wearing yellow smiley-face stickers pushed journalists and protesters away from the court entrance area. They threw at least one protester to the ground and took away four of them.
Since coming to power in 2013, President Xi Jinping has spearheaded crackdowns on civil activists, rights lawyers and online freedom of expression, in moves aimed at snuffing out any potential threats to the Communist Party’s grip on power.
Pu was detained shortly after attending a May 2014 meeting to discuss commemorating 25 years since the Tiananmen Square massacre, at a time when authorities were keeping a lid on any public commemorations of the event. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of protesters were killed, and the topic remains taboo in China.
The charges against Pu relate to a number of posts on China’s Twitter-like Sina Weibo that questioned the ruling Communist Party’s policies toward the Tibetan and Uighur ethnic minorities in the Tibet and Xinjiang regions, and mocked political figures.
Rights groups have said he faces up to eight years in prison.
Dan Biers, a diplomat with the US embassy, told reporters outside the courthouse that the US urges Chinese authorities to release Pu and uphold the Chinese constitution.
“Lawyers and civil society leaders such as Mr Pu should not be subject to continued repression but should be allowed to contribute to the building of a prosperous and stable society,” Mr Biers said, reading from a statement.
Patrick Poon, China researcher at Amnesty International, called Pu’s trial an act of political persecution. “He is being punished solely for standing up to the Chinese government in his courageous defence of human rights,” he said.
Amnesty International says there have been “repeated procedural irregularities” in his prosecution, including a prolonged pre-trial detention, denial of adequate medical care and prosecutors refusing to disclose evidence against him to his defence lawyers.