HONG KONG—A hearing in the trial of two members of an unofficial Protestant "house church" who appealed after they were sentenced to labor camp opened Monday amid tight security in the central Chinese province of Henan.
Rights activists and supporters of the two men said they were denied permission to enter the courtroom.
Pastor Zhang Mingxuan, head of the China Association of House Churches, said he was detained by police outside the Intermediate People's Court in Xuchang city after he took photos of police with his mobile phone.
"I went to the court this afternoon because of the labor camp case involving our brothers," Zhang said.
"I was there watching with our brothers and sisters, and plainclothes police from Shangqiu and Xuchang threatened us and stopped us from taking photographs with our cell phones," he said.
"He told me that if I took a photo of him, he would call for me to be detained and I wouldn't be allowed inside to hear the trial."
Failure to pay 'fines'
Gao Jianli and Liu Yunhua were first detained in March for 15 days alongside other members of their Full Scope Church after refusing to pay "fines" to police officers who raided their group.
They were handed a one-year sentence of "re-education through labor" on March 25, and promptly appealed, forcing the trial to be heard in court.
The sentence was upheld on Aug. 2 by the Weidu People's District Court in Xuchang. Monday's hearing was the second hearing at a higher level of the same appeal case.
"There were nine of us who came, but none of us was allowed in," said Liu Sen, son of defendant Liu Yunhua. "They let four relatives from Yucheng county in."
"Some of us were allowed in, and some had to wait outside. They took Pastor Zhang away to the Banjiehe police station. He didn't come out again for several hours."
Li Yuxia, wife of defendant Gao Jianli, said police called for back-up to deal with Pastor "Bike" Zhang, who is known for traveling through China on a bicycle to find new converts.
"The police from Shangqiu police station called the emergency number when he saw Pastor Zhang at the door, and he was taken away to the police station," Li said.
"He didn't come out till more than three hours later."
Beijing-based rights lawyer Yang Huiwen, who represented Gao and Liu, said the detention of Zhang and the refusal of visitor passes was against the law.
"Some people were subjected to illegal obstruction by police from Shangqiu city while trying to gain a visitor pass to hear the trial," Yang said.
Yang said the key points of his appeal case were centered around due process, whether correct procedure had been followed, and whether there was sufficient evidence to send Liu and Gao for a year's "re-education through labor."
"Re-education through labor" is an administrative sentence that is usually handed down without trial for up to a maximum of three years.
"Our defense was basically that there was no substantive evidence that justified a labor camp sentence, and secondly that this case had no relation to the kinds of cases provided for in the 'Process for Implementing Re-education Through Labor' guidelines," he said.
Labeled a 'cult'
"Thirdly, we argued that it was inappropriate to style a Protestant church as an 'evil cult,'" he said, referring to an appellation usually used against practitioners of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement.
Yang said the Full Scope Church had been styled an "evil cult" by the authorities on the basis of secret guidelines that are internal to the police force and carry no academic or legal weight.
"Such criteria cannot therefore be used as a basis for punishment," he said. "In doing so, the authorities have exceeded the limits of executive power."
U.S.-based Christian rights group ChinaAid called on the Henan authorities to "uphold justice."
In a statement on its website, the group said police believe the Full Scope Church is a cult, "harmful to society because church members cry and weep during prayers, and because they founded a Sunday school for their children."
"We encourage local citizens of conscience to attend the session to show their support," the group said.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Qiao Long. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.