Authorities in the northern Chinese city of Tianjin have detained at least 20 supporters of detained rights activist Wu Gan, known by his online nickname "The Butcher," who stood trial behind closed doors on charges of subversion on Monday, fellow activists said.
Wu, 43, was initially detained in the eastern province of Jiangxi in 2015 and handed a 10-day administrative sentence before being placed under criminal detention on suspicion of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," "libel," and "incitement to subvert state power."
"Wu Gan's subversion trial opens in secret today," rights activist and Wu supporter Zhang Xuezhong wrote in a post to social media. "Everyone is predicting that he will receive a heavy sentence, owing to the fact that he has refused to capitulate since being detained."
Video shot outside the Tianjin No. 2 Intermediate People's Court showed dozens of people milling around on the street, flanked by security personnel.
Ding Yu'e, a supporter of Wu's, said there was a heavy police presence outside the court building.
"They are on high alert, and the state security police are everywhere," Ding told RFA. "There are traffic controls in place outside the gates of the court compound, and the buses have stopped running there."
"The entire place is surrounded by iron fencing, and they are stopping pedestrians at intersections a long way from the court," she said. "We were walking [near Kaide Square] and were questioned by them."
An eyewitness outside the court said he had counted more than 100 plainclothes police officers.
"There is a large group of police officers surrounding a bunch of foreigners," he said. "I can also hear someone chanting 'Free the Butcher!'"
Rights activists Wang Yi and He Jiawei were also detained at the court, yelling "Release Wu Gan!" as they were put into a police vehicle, he said.
About 20 supporters detained
Ding said she was among those detained.
"We hadn't done anything, but they took us down to the police station, where we couldn't even take out our cell phones, because they would be confiscated," Ding said. "I counted, and there were about 20 people all told."
"The waiting room was completely packed when we got there," she said of the Guijiasi police station.
Rights activist Zhu Chengde said another detained supporter, Wang Lihong, had been taken to hospital with heart problems from the same police station.
"We were in the Guijiasi police station in Tianjin, when Wang Lihong had a heart attack," Zhu said. "Two women wanted to board the ambulance to help her, but they wouldn't let them."
Ding said she and her friends had been forced to wait around in the police station all morning, before she was sent to the Hongshunli police station in her home district of Hebei.
"They got in touch with them and they came to pick me up," Ding said. "I am on the way back there now, and the duty police officer is watching me."
An employee who answered the phone at the Guijiasi police station declined to comment.
"If you have questions about cases or anything else you will have to speak to the external communications team at the Tianjin city police department and go through all of their procedures," the employee said. "We don't take queries over the phone."
Wu Gan's case was transferred from the southeastern province of Fujian to Tianjin as part of the nationwide crackdown begun on lawyers and rights activists on July 9, 2015 with a raid on the Beijing Fengrui law firm, his lawyer has said.
Refusal to confess
He has reported suffering torture while being held under investigation in a police detention center.
While police in Wu's home province of Fujian recommended state prosecutors formally arrest him, and critical articles about him have appeared in China's tightly controlled state media, his case may have been transferred in a bid to put further pressure on him after he refused to "confess," lawyer Wu Kuiming has said in previous interviews with RFA.
Fengrui lawyers Wang Yu and Bao Longjun were released on "bail" following Wang's televised "confession" to subversion charges against her, and her repudiation of two overseas rights awards, which she wrote were acts of hostility towards the Chinese government.
Activists say such "confessions" are now a common tactic used by police under the administration of President Xi Jinping. Prominent journalist Gao Yu has said that she made a similar televised "confession" after the authorities threatened to retaliate against her son, and later retracted it.
Beijing-based rights activist Gou Hongguo said Wu Gan's trial is being held in secret because the lack of such a confession makes the authorities look bad.
"They have lost a lot of face with this case already," Gou told RFA. "It has had a very negative impact for them both at home and internationally."
He said the Tianjin authorities, who have prosecuted all of the cases linked to a July 2015 crackdown on rights lawyers and related activists, are doing the central government's dirty work for it, and had been stymied by Wu's refusal to plead guilty or accept their treatment of him.
"Wu Gan has taken the attitude all along that he will not cooperate, he won't recognize their laws and he won't recognize the authority of any of the regime's actions," Gou said. "This is their worst nightmare, and this tactic of non-cooperation is very effective."
Wu's initial detention came as he staged a performance protest he titled "selling my body to raise funds" in Nanchang city, Jiangxi province.
He was trying to help finance a legal defense for four men who rights campaigners say were wrongly jailed by a court in Jiangxi's Leping city in 2000 for robbery, rape, and dismembering a corpse.
A May 28 article in the state-run news agency Xinhua attacked Wu Gan for his criticism of the police killing of a man at the Qing'an railway station in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang earlier the same month.
Rights activists say Wu likely first drew the ire of the authorities when he posted online his doubts about the credibility of the government’s investigation of the shooting.
Reported by Ng Yik-tung and Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.