Authorities in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong deployed tight security as the trial of the "Guangzhou Three" rights activists resumed on Thursday, detaining around 20 people who showed up to support them.
Rights lawyer Tang Jingling, former teacher Wang Qingying, and writer-activist Yuan Xinting, known as the Guangzhou Three, initially stood trial on June 19 at the Guangzhou Intermediate People's Court for "incitement to subvert state power" after being held in a police detention center for more than a year.
But the trial was adjourned after the three men dismissed their defense team amid a procedural dispute with court officials, who refused to let them call witnesses.
The procedural wrangles continued in court as defense lawyers raised repeated objections, as the three men rejected the charges against them, Tang's wife Wang Yanfang told RFA.
"[My husband's] thinking was very clear and he elaborated very well on all his work and his non-violent civil disobedience activism," Wang said.
"[He explained] his aims and goals, which were to work towards social and national progress," she said.
The trial continued throughout the day before adjourning at 5.00 p.m. with no break for lunch, Wang said.
"We just ate a lunch box and then the hearing continued," she said.
Some 28 relatives of the three defendants were present in the public gallery, as well as government officials.
"There was no way we could get them to allow friends to come in," Wang said.
"There were a lot of police outside, and security was very tight, so that people who showed up hoping to attend couldn't even get close."
"As soon as they approached, they were taken away."
Tang's lawyer Ge Yongxi said that one of the objections in court, brought by Wang Qingying's attorney, related to potential conflicts of interest among court officials hearing the non-jury trial.
Court officials had responded by reading out the list, but in such a quiet voice as to be inaudible, Ge said.
He said that repeated requests from the defense to call witnesses were denied, and much of their evidence was deemed inadmissible.
"We had already made application for these witnesses to appear in court, and we had evidence we wished to submit, but they were all denied, one after the other," Ge told RFA after the hearing on Thursday.
"They were of the opinion that the witnesses and evidence were unnecessary," he said.
But he said there is no basis for the charges of subversion against the Guangzhou Three.
The trial, which continues on Friday, came as police swooped on dozens of rights activists and supporters of the Guangzhou Three, placing them under surveillance, forced "vacation," or issuing them with police warnings not to try to attend.
20 supporters detained
Some 20 activists and supporters, including Jia Pin, Sun Tao, Li Biyun, and Hunan activist He Jiawei, were detained outside the court buildings amid a heavy police presence.
Among them was Hunan-based Bao Naigang, who said he was detained at a temporary location at first.
"I was taken at first from the court buildings to a primary school, where we waited until 2.00 p.m., before going to the police station," Bao said.
"There were around 20 of us who were taken to the primary school, but only I was taken to the Meihuacun police station," he said.
"Everyone else was grouped together in the primary school, but the state security police sent us all off to different police stations," he said.
The trial comes amid an unprecedented nationwide police operation targeting China's embattled legal profession, and as Wang Qingying's former defense attorney Sui Muqing is himself being held on suspicion of subversion.
A group of 24 international law organizations penned an open letter condemning the crackdown on Wednesday.
"The undersigned organizations strongly condemn the recent unprecedented and seemingly well coordinated detention of a large number of human rights lawyers in China," the letter, addressed to Chinese President Xi Jinping and the ministry of public security in Beijing, said.
Citing the "disappearance" of rights lawyer Wang Yu in a raid on the Fengrui law firm earlier this month, the letter called for the immediate release of "all these lawyers, law firm staff and human rights defenders who have been arbitrarily deprived of their liberty."
It called on Beijing to "immediately confirm the whereabouts of those currently in detention and that you ensure that they have prompt and regular access to their lawyers and family."
The letter, signed by bar associations, judges' groups and lawyers' associations across Europe and North America, called for an end to violent attacks and torture, surveillance, soft detention, judicial detention and police harassment of China's embattled legal profession.
Tang Jingling, Wang Qingying and Yuan Xinting were initially criminally detained on May 16, 2014 for "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble."
But the charges were later changed to the more serious subversion charges, which carry a maximum penalty of 15 years' imprisonment in cases deemed "serious" by the judge.
Tang, 43, a prominent civil rights lawyer and activist who has represented disadvantaged groups including farmers who have lost land to development and political activists, was detained during a nationwide crackdown ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square military crackdown on June 3-4.
The police charge sheet for Tang mentioned his involvement in "civil disobedience movements," a commemoration of the death of Mao-era dissident Lin Zhao, and a June 4 meditation event.
Also mentioned was his part in a campaign to end China's "hukou" household registration system linking access to education and other public services to a person's town of birth.
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.