China court locked down for trial of prominent rights lawyer

December 26, 2018 - 6:10 PM
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A man walks past the courthouse where prominent rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang is being tried in Tianjin
A man walks past the courthouse where prominent rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang is being tried in Tianjin, China December 26, 2018. (Reuters/Thomas Peter)

TIANJIN, China — Chinese police locked down a courthouse on Wednesday for the trial of a prominent rights lawyer who is accused of subversion of state power and whose case has attracted widespread concern in Western countries.

Wang Quanzhang, who took on sensitive cases such as complaints of police torture and defended followers of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, went missing in August 2015 during a sweeping crackdown on rights activists.

Most cases from that summer, known as the 709 cases for the first day of detentions on July 9, 2015, have concluded. Wang, however, was incommunicado for more than 1,000 days.

An investigation said he had “for a long time been influenced by infiltrating anti-China forces” and had been trained by overseas groups and accepted their funding, according to a copy of the indictment seen by Reuters.

Police outside the court in the northern city of Tianjin told reporters they could not get near the building because it was a closed trial.

Yang Chunlin, an activist who has previously been jailed for subversion, stood opposite the courthouse shouting “Wang Quanzhang is a good person” and “I support Wang Quanzhang” before plainclothes agents wrestled him into a car and sped away.

There were also several Western diplomats outside the courthouse, who were not allowed inside.

The indictment says Wang worked with Peter Dahlin, a Swedish rights worker who was detained in China for three weeks before being deported in 2016, and others to “train hostile forces”, as well as provide investigative reports on China to outsiders.

It also says Wang had distorted the facts in his online statements about the case of a policeman who killed a man in Heilongjiang in 2014, and of “cults” that he had defended.

Dahlin, now in Madrid, said on Twitter they had kept all documentation dating back to 2009 “and will release anything needed to dispel that it constitutes subverting state power”.

Calls to the court seeking comment went unanswered. The trial could last a single day, although a verdict may not come immediately.

‘Sham trial’

Rights group Amnesty International said Wang’s trial was a “cruel charade”.

“This is a sham trial in which Wang Quanzhang is being persecuted only for peacefully defending human rights,” said Doriane Lau, China researcher at Amnesty International.

Wang’s wife, Li Wenzu, says she has been unable to visit her husband since he went missing. She said seven lawyers she appointed to try to represent Wang had also been unable to visit him.

In a statement sent to Reuters, Li said state security agents had followed her when she left her Beijing home and blocked off the six entrances to her compound.

She decided she would be unable to go to Tianjin after more than an hour spent trying to leave, she said.

It was not possible to reach the State Security Ministry for comment because it has no website or publicly available telephone number.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has strengthened efforts to quash dissent since coming to power six years ago, with hundreds of rights lawyers and activists detained and dozens jailed.

China routinely rejects foreign criticism of its human rights record, saying all Chinese are treated equally in accordance with the law and that foreign countries have no right to interfere.

China often holds high-profile human rights trials over the Christmas holidays, which activists and diplomats say is an attempt to minimize international attention.

On Tuesday, the justice department in the southern province of Guangdong disbarred another rights lawyer, Liu Zhengqing, on the grounds that his public defense statements had endangered national security, according to Hong Kong-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an advocacy group.

China’s legal authorities have disbarred over a dozen rights lawyers since a new set of rules with heightened political loyalty requirements for lawyers were introduced in 2016.

One of the lawyers, Yu Wensheng, had been Wang’s defense attorney, before he was stripped of his license and then arrested in January. He is now being investigated for “inciting subversion”. — Reporting by Christian Shepherd; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Paul Tait and Darren Schuettler