Authorities in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong on Friday tried the latest in a string of next-generation rights activists for subversion after he posted a number of political essays online.
Chen Qitang, better known by his pseudonym Tian Li, stood trial at the Foshan Intermediate People’s Court on a charge of "incitement to subvert state power."
The trial, which lasted just two-and-a-half hours, focused on six political commentary pieces posted by Chen, three of which were penned by him, his defense lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan told RFA.
Chen pleaded not guilty, and his defense team argued that none of his actions constituted a crime under Chinese law, Liu said.
The prosecution case said the articles represented a "harsh attack" on the ruling Chinese Communist Party, however.
A verdict and sentence will be announced at a later date, usually within six weeks in China's judicial system.
"It's hard to predict what the sentence will be," Liu said. "The prosecution were of the view that [Chen] is a repeat offender."
He added: "His first sentence was less than five years, and his arrest [though not his subsequent trial] was also for incitement to subvert state power."
Incitement to subvert state power carries a maximum jail term of five years in less serious cases, and a minimum jail term of five years in cases deemed more serious, including where the suspect is regarded as a ringleader or a repeat offender.
Jailed Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo is currently serving a 13-year sentence on the same charge.
Chen, a former editor of two online publications, has already served a two-and-a-half year jail-term for "fraud" after he helped local farmers in Foshan defend their land rights.
Security was tight around the trial, with some 20 or 30 police vehicles parked outside the court, and around 100 officers on duty, fellow defense attorney Li Fangping told RFA.
The authorities had foam extinguisher trucks from the fire department, a water cannon, and some empty buses for detainees standing by, Li said.
Calls to the Foshan municipal police department rang unanswered during office hours on Friday.
The trial comes a day after the same court tried activist Su Changlan on the same charge after she showed public support for the 2014 pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.
Guangdong rights activist Liang Songji said he had driven to Foshan along with his wife on Friday in a bid to attend the trial, but was detained by plainclothes police as soon as he approached the court buildings.
He said several dozen farmers who Chen had previously helped in a land dispute were also taken away from outside the court by police.
"They stopped my car, beat it and shot video of us; they were trying to make me get out of the car, and then they dragged me out and kidnapped me," Liang said. "They bundled me into a police station, and then to a detention center somewhere in Foshan."
"Then the Guangzhou police came and escorted me back to Guangzhou," he said.
Chen was initially by police under administrative detention in October 2014. His status was later converted to criminal detention owing to his connection to Su Changlan, the Chinese Human Rights Defenders Network (CHRD) said in a statement on its website.
Abused in detention
The group, which collates and translates reports from a network of groups inside China, said Chen is the latest in a string of five activists to face trial, many of whom have reported mistreatment in detention and abuse of due legal process.
"Violations include restricted access to legal counsel, unreasonably prolonged pre-trial detention, deprivation of proper medical treatment, and increased use of “endangering national security”
charges," CHRD said.
"Several of those who have been put on trial over the past week have alleged they were tortured or mistreated in other ways while in custody. CHRD calls for their immediate and unconditional release," it said.
The group said Chen and fellow activists Liu Shaoming, Yuan Bing, Yuan Xiaohua and Su Changlan were all detained in apparent violation of their rights to exercising free expression and assembly, and after posting essays, messages or photos of a “politically sensitive” nature online, or taking part in peaceful demonstrations.
Not all face subversion charges; some have stood trial for public order offenses.
However, all the cases were marked by abuses of due process rights, something that has become commonplace under the administration of President Xi Jinping, CHRD said.
All activists were subjected to unreasonably prolonged pre-trial detention, while some reported restricted access to lawyers and deprivation of proper medical treatment in the case of Su Changlan.
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese Service and by the Mandarin Service. Written in English by Luisetta Mudie.