Authorities in the eastern Chinese province of Anhui on Wednesday began the trial of a democracy activist over a protest against his daughter's removal from school because of his activism.
Zhang Lin, a veteran dissident with the banned opposition China Democracy Party (CDP), is accused by the Bengshan District People's Court in Anhui's Bengbu city of "gathering a crowd to disrupt public order" at a demonstration in April at which dozens of people protested an elementary school for preventing his 10-year-old daughter Zhang Anni from attending class.
Zhang pleaded not guilty, telling the court his own actions had been "reasonable and lawful" at all times and were a response to the illegal actions of the Anhui authorities, Zhang's lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan said.
"Zhang Lin made his own defense and not guilty plea," Liu said. "His child was abducted and was unable to attend school in [the provincial capital] Hefei, which attracted the attention of netizens across the country."
Zhang, who has served 13 years in prison on subversion charges for his political activities, faces up to five more years in jail if convicted.
Anni has been dubbed “China’s youngest prisoner of conscience” after she was taken out of school and detained for several hours in February, denied food water and a blanket, and later prevented from attending school and held under house arrest, according to rights groups.
She has been living in the U.S. since September and last week called for his release in an open letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping and leaders of other governments.
Tears shed, security tight
Zhang appeared in the dock wearing standard issue prison uniform and manacles and shed tears when he spoke about the authorities' treatment of Anni and the campaign for her schooling, Liu said.
Zhang's actions didn't amount to the crime he is charged with, Liu said. "His lawyers also argued his innocence.... But I think they will find him guilty," he said.
He said security was very tight around the court buildings in Bengbu on Wednesday, although the authorities issued dozens of permits to view the proceedings.
"There were more than 40 places for spectators, but I got the impression that they were all filled by the government, with the exception of Zhang Lin's parents," he said.
He said embassy officials from the U.S., Germany, and Canada were denied entry on the basis that there were no available seats.
Zhang Lin's mother said Zhang appeared thinner than when she last saw him.
"He's thinner," she said. "He spoke pretty well...when he was cross-examining the prosecution witnesses about Anni's schooling in Hefei, they were unable to answer him."
Call for release
Rights activists say Anni and her half-sister Ruli, who left China for California following their father's arrest, are not the first children of veteran dissidents from China's 1989 pro-democracy movement to be targeted by the authorities and that the family has suffered economic hardship as a result of Zhang's long-term unemployment linked to his dissident past.
Zhang, 50, is a veteran of the 1989 pro-democracy movement in Anhui and was jailed several times for his political activities since the banning of the opposition China Democracy Party (CDP) in 1998.
Many dissidents imprisoned after the 1989 military crackdown on student-led protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing married late after serving lengthy jail terms, and their children are still relatively young.
Zhang was formally arrested on Aug. 22 following a dispute with the authorities after police pulled Anni out of primary school in February and detained her for several hours.
Zhang and Anni left the provincial capital of Anhui in April for the family's hometown of Bengbu after more than 30 activists from around the country converged on Hefei in protest at Anni's Feb. 27 removal from the city's Hupo Elementary School by police.
The family was held under house arrest and Anni was still denied permission to attend school, prompting Zhang to escape house arrest to press his case with National People's Congress delegates and activists in Beijing.
State security police brought the pair back to Bengbu amid firm promises that Anni could attend school and that no retaliatory action would be taken.
But the authorities swiftly moved against Zhang, holding him under criminal detention soon after his return, and prompting a lone protest from Anni outside the Bengbu detention center, where she held up a placard which read: "Release my father and let me go to school."
Reported by Xin Yu for RFA's Mandarin Service and by Grace Kei Lai-see for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.