BEIJING (TNS) — Chinese authorities tried one of the country's most prominent human rights lawyers behind closed doors on Monday morning, as police roughed up protesters, journalists and diplomats who gathered outside of a Beijing courthouse hoping to observe the proceedings.
Prosecutors have charged Pu Zhiqiang, 50, with "picking quarrels and provoking trouble" and "inciting ethnic hatred" over seven microblog posts that he penned between 2011 and 2014.
Pu, known as China's "Giant Lawyer" for his commanding height and baritone voice, has gained a massive following online as a bold and acerbic critic of government policy. He could face up to eight years in prison; human rights groups have called his case a government attack on free expression and dissent.
"(Pu) admitted the seven microblogs were written by him, there was no issue with it, this is a fact," Pu's lawyer, Mo Shaoping, told the Reuters news agency. "Secondly, he said that if these microblog posts had caused injury to other people, he apologizes for it. Thirdly, he had no intention to incite ethnic hatred or pick quarrels and provoke trouble."
The court has not yet announced a verdict or sentence in the case.
On Monday morning, dozens of police, uniformed and plainclothes, guarded the streets surrounding the court, wearing down coats and anti-pollution face masks. Soon after the trial began, police began violently shoving a crowd of journalists and diplomats – including representatives from the U.S., European Union and Australia – away from the courthouse gates.
The U.S. Embassy is "concerned" about the "vague charges" leveled against Pu, Dan Biers, deputy political counselor at the embassy, told a small scrum of reporters as police shoved and shouted "go" to drown out his words. "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 prosperous and stable China," he said.
"We urge Chinese authorities to release Mr. Pu," Biers said, repeating his statement about 100 feet down the road, "and call upon China to uphold fundamental human civil rights and fair-trial guarantees as enshrined in the (Chinese) constitution and its international human rights commitments."
The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China said in a statement that the authorities' "effort to deter news coverage is a gross violation of Chinese government rules governing foreign correspondents."
"Legal coverage is a normal part of journalistic work and is expected grow as China pushes to develop its rule of law," it said.
About a block away from the courthouse, a few dozen protesters raised signs denouncing Chinese police and calling for democracy and improved human rights. "Pu Zhiqiang is not guilty!" they chanted. At least two protesters were detained.
Authorities detained Pu in May after he participated in a private commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, when government-dispatched soldiers opened fire on peaceful pro-democracy protesters, killing hundreds. He was formally arrested in June.
Activists and human rights groups say that since 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping has presided over the country's most intense crackdown on dissent since the years following the massacre. In July, authorities rounded up about 200 human rights lawyers in a major nationwide sweep; many of them remain behind bars.
"This is a government that has had not the slightest hesitation in the last two years about detaining, disappearing, torturing, and/or prosecuting people who have done nothing wrong," said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. "It doesn't matter if they're labor rights leaders, feminists or human rights lawyers.
"This is less how government functions and more like a season of 'The Sopranos,'" she continued.
As a lawyer, Pu was known for assiduously keeping his activism within the boundaries of Chinese law. Since his formal arrest, authorities have leveled and then subsequently dropped two charges against him — "illegally obtaining citizens' private information" and "inciting separatism."