Human rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong stood trial on subversion charges on Tuesday in the central Chinese province of Hunan, in a process that was immediately denounced by his family as a show trial.
Jiang, who pleaded guilty to "incitement to subvert state power" at the Intermediate People's Court in the provincial capital Changsha, told the court that his "confessions" to police and prosecutors were entirely free and voluntary.
"I totally accept that I am guilty of inciting others to overthrow state power and the socialist system, and that my actions constituted a crime," Jiang told the court in video footage of the trial that appeared to be carefully scripted.
"I am extremely remorseful about my actions, which brought great harm both to my country and society, but especially to my parents and other family members," he said.
Jiang said he hoped other "so-called rights activists" would learn a lesson from his case.
Jiang's trial followed a similar pattern to those of other lawyers and activists detained in a nationwide crackdown on the legal profession and non-government groups since July 2015.
Previous detainees accused of subversion-related offenses have later been released to live under close police surveillance alongside their families. Those who refuse to "confess" are typically handed heavy jail terms.
Detainees in this group are also typically held at unknown locations with no access to lawyers or family visits while awaiting trial, and have reported being tortured or coerced into televised "confessions"
following threats to their families.
The video also showed the prosecutor asking Jiang whether his "confession" was voluntary.
"It is genuine and entirely made of my own free will," Jiang is seen to reply. "Everyone involved in this case acted entirely according to the law and protected my legal rights at every turn."
‘A script that was shot’
But Jiang's U.S.-based wife Jin Bianling slammed Tuesday's hearing as a "show trial."
"The entire proceeding was a script that was shot, edited and directed by [the authorities]," Jin said. "His parents were forcibly taken to Changsha, and we haven't heard from them for a long time because of [the death of] Liu Xiaobo."
Prominent Chinese dissident and Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo died of liver cancer in July after authorities transferred him from prison to a hospital only after his disease was in the final stages. He had been serving an 11-year jail term in northeastern China’s Liaoning province for "engaging in agitation activities … aimed at subversion of the state and overthrowing the socialist system."
Jin said Jiang has been denied access to a lawyer appointed by his family, and the authorities have claimed that he chose to use a government lawyer instead.
"I thought Jiang Tianyong looked very red in the face, and not like a normal person," she said. "He was a lot thinner than before ... and he was pretty expressionless. I think they have either been force-feeding him medication or torturing him."
Jin said she also fears Jiang Tianyong and his parents will now be cut off from all communications with the outside world as soon as the trial is over.
"I worry that he will be disappeared in the same manner as [his former client] Xie Yang," she said. "How long that will go on for, I have no idea."
She called on the U.S. government to put political pressure on the Chinese government to release Jiang, and allow him to be reunited overseas with his family.
"All he did was help his colleagues and vulnerable groups in society, and for that they say he is a criminal, which is utterly ridiculous," Jin said.
Rights lawyer Ma Lianshun, who has tried to defend other fellow attorneys detained in the crackdown, said he didn't believe that Jiang's statement was made voluntarily.
"Faced with the threat of torture, as well as the suffering of others, he wants to try to end that suffering," Ma said. "Jiang Tianyong shouldn't be blamed for this; I think that makes him even more admirable."
"But regardless of what he actually says, it is all the product of torture," he said.
Fellow activist Guo Chunping agreed.
"After all those years of promoting democracy and the rule of law, he suddenly comes out with something like this, that he regrets his crimes and pleads guilty?" Guo said. "In the meantime, he has had no visits from his lawyers and his parents have been brought to Changsha."
"It's not hard to deduce that he has been subjected to both physical and mental suffering and pressure," Guo said.
Trip to Changsta
Wang Qiaoling, the wife of detained attorney Li Heping, and Liu Renmin, wife of detained lawyer Di Yanmin, said they were planning to travel to Changsha to show support for Jiang.
"We just crossed into Henan, and a transport police officer came to our seats and looked at our tickets, then asked us why we were going to Changsa," Wang told RFA on Monday, en route to the provincial capital. "Normally the guards check the tickets, and they only do it once."
"The police officer made a point of taking photos of our tickets," she said, adding that it was likely that she and Liu would be stopped on arrival in Changsha.
"Yes, it's very likely, but I've been detained 10 times now, so it's starting to seem normal," she said.
It was unclear whether the pair made it as far as the court buildings on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, official media pointed to Jiang's alleged involvement with "overseas organizations."
"The workshops were mainly about Western constitutional system," the Global Times, which has close ties to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, quoted him as saying in court.
"They had an impact on me, helping develop ideas of overthrowing China's [socialist] system and implementing the Western system in China. All these have motivated me to attack the Chinese government and its judicial organs," Jiang was quoted as saying.
The Communist Party under President Xi Jinping is increasingly using allegations of involvement by overseas organizations to target peaceful dissidents and rights activists.
Xi has repeatedly warned against "hostile foreign forces" attempting to overthrow Communist Party rule by infiltrating China with "western" religious practices and ideas like democracy, constitutional government, and human rights.
More than 300 lawyers, law firm staff, rights activists and relatives were detained, questioned, or placed under surveillance or other restrictions in a nationwide police operation targeting the legal profession launched in July 2015.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.