Police and court officials scuffled with journalists and supporters of a prominent Chinese human rights lawyer at his trial at a Beijing court on Monday.
Pu Zhiqiang, 50, stood trial for "incitement to racial hatred" and "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble" at the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People's Court after being held in criminal detention for more than a year.
Several hundred of Pu's supporters showed up outside the court building holding placards, and police detained 18 people in scuffles with the crowd, eyewitnesses said.
"There were several hundred ordinary people and a large number of rights lawyers, as well as foreign diplomats and journalists at the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People's Court on Monday, at around 9.00 a.m.," Beijing resident Xiang Li told RFA.
"They were hoping to get into the courtroom to see the trial, but they were made to stand outside a police line," Xiang said.
"Right now, 18 citizens are being held by police in Fangzhuang police station, including Li Meiqing, Liang Hongxia, Zhang Zhan, Tian Weidong, and others."
Xiang said police had thrown a tight security cordon around the area, using vehicles to block the area. "There are also a lot of plainclothes and secret police around the place ... dispersing the crowd."
Another activist told RFA: "Everyone gathered there, and suddenly somebody shouted out "Pu Zhiqiang is innocent!" and everybody shouted it together."
"More and more people came, and there were foreign journalists shooting video, and then a plainclothes policeman came in and grabbed Zhang Zhan. I saw them take four or five people away with my own eyes," the activist said.
Inside the the court, the prosecution was basing its case on seven tweets made by Pu to the Twitter-like Sina Weibo social media platform, his lawyer Mo Shaoping told RFA.
Pu had freely admitted that he sent the tweets from several accounts he had set up on the popular service Sina Weibo between 2012 and May 2014, Mo said.
"He admitted the facts of the case; that he wrote the tweets, and admitted that they were rather rude, uncivilized, and not ideal," Mo said.
"He said he was prepared to admit to causing harm to others, and offered to make a formal apology ... but he refused to plead guilty," he said.
The "incitement to racial hatred" charge was based on a number of tweets he sent in the aftermath of the March 1, 2014 knife attack at Kunming railway station, which left 29 people dead and more than 140 injured.
Mo said Pu had simply been expressing his views on public events, in the public interest, and that the defense team had argued that no crime had been committed.
"Citizens have a right to air their views on public events, including those that doubt or are critical of government policy," he said, adding that those "harmed" by Pu's tweets could have handled the issue more appropriately by bringing a civil lawsuit.
Pu is accused of "venting his spleen" online and "using humiliating language," as well as "harming race relations," according to the charge sheet.
In one of the tweets seen by RFA, Pu takes aim at Shen Jilan, an elderly delegate who claims never to have voted "no" in the National People's Congress (NPC). In another, he hits out at government official Tian Zhenhui, while in another he asks "why would China work without the Communist Party?"
But ethnic Mongolian rights activist Xinna rejected the claims of incitement to ethnic hatred against Pu, saying he is being put on trial for criticizing Beijing's treatment of ethnic minorities.
"Pu Zhiqiang has always been very outspoken on ethnic issues, and that's what I most admire about him, as a member of an ethnic minority myself," Xinna told RFA on Monday.
"China is using the vocabulary of anti-terrorism to wage war on ethnic minorities, for example in Xinjiang," she said. "Pu Zhiqiang said some things that most people don't dare say."
Pu's detention on May 6, 2014 came ahead of an event marking the anniversary of the military crackdown on the 1989 student-led pro-democracy movement at Tiananmen Square.
The lawyers are arguing that there is no need for Pu's prolonged detention, because he doesn't represent a danger to society, and have out at repeated delays and extensions to his stay in Beijing's police-run No. 3 Detention Center.
Pu's wife Meng Qun, who has said she is concerned for her husband's health because he suffers from diabetes and needs daily medication, attended the trial.
"It ended after half a day, and there was no verdict delivered," Meng tweeted after the trial. "He seemed on good form today, and was speaking fluently and thinking fast, just like he always did."
"He's a lot thinner than he was, though, and his hair has grayed."
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.