Authorities in the central Chinese province of Hunan have postponed the subversion trial of rights lawyer Xie Yang after his supporters, foreign diplomats, and family members of fellow lawyers showed up to support him on Tuesday.
Xie, who has made a long and detailed report of torture in detention, was due to stand trial at the Changsha Intermediate People’s Court on charges of "incitement to subvert state power" and "disrupting court order."
Xie's wife Chen Guiqiu has been resettled in the United States after fleeing China with the couple's two young daughters to seek political refugee status with the United Nations in Thailand.
The postponement came after dozens of supporters and foreign embassy officials flocked to the court on Tuesday in the hope of witnessing the trial from the public gallery.
But the authorities suddenly announced the trial date had been changed, without giving any reason, and all supporters and would-be observers were ordered to leave, activists at the scene told RFA.
Xu Qin of the China Rights Observer group said there was no police cordon around the court buildings in the Hunan provincial capital Changsha.
"There wasn't a single police vehicle, nor were there any police at the roadside, and they allowed us to go in, just saying they didn't know which court Xie Yang's trial was in," Xu said.
"They wouldn't allow any foreign journalists or embassy human rights observers in ... They were stopping journalists and taking them into the court building, where they interviewed them for about 20, 30 minutes, before taking them to the hotel across the road. It took more than a hour to confirm the journalists' identities," he said.
Xu said plainclothes officers from China's state security police were also mingling with the crowd of Xie's supporters, asking for their names.
Not surprised by decision
Meanwhile, Wang Qiaoling, wife of detained rights lawyer Li Heping, said she was unsurprised by the decision to postpone the trial.
"I don't think it's surprising that the trial didn't happen today," Wang told RFA from the scene. "A similar thing played out last year in Tianjin last August as well."
"We came here to show our support for Xie Yang, because we know he is a good lawyer, just like our loved ones who were also detained in the crackdown," she said. "They are all good lawyers."
Xie's former defense attorney Lin Qilei said the court should give three days' notice at least of any trial date.
"This explains why [they] didn't issue a definite statement that the trial would be today," Lin said. "I think the government deliberately let the news leak out ... but we thought it might not go ahead because the April 25 date was never announced through official channels."
"But people will go to show support whenever the trial takes place," he added.
Xie's case has attracted widespread concern among international governments, although China's official media has dismissed reports of his torture as "fabrications."
"We are following this case very closely and our human rights counselor is in Changsha today," a Beijing-based EU spokesman told reporters.
According to Chen Guiqiu, the authorities had prevented Xie's defense lawyers from working on the case after they made detailed reports of Xie's torture in detention public, substituting a government lawyer in their place.
Chen said New Jersey Republican Rep. Chris Smith had pledged continuing interest in the plight of China's detained rights lawyers, law firm staff, and associated activists, amid reports that the administration of President Donald Trump is considering bringing the Magnitsky Act to bear on Chinese officials linked to a nationwide crackdown on human rights lawyers.
The Magnitsky legislation, which originally targeted the Russian officials responsible for the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow prison in 2009, has been welcomed by Chinese activists as the best chance of holding Chinese officials to account for rights abuses.
Reports of torture
Rights activists have repeatedly called for Xie's immediate release in recent months, detailing his lawyers' reports of his torture in a police-run detention center in the central province of Hunan.
Initially detained on July 11, 2015, Xie was held under "residential surveillance at a designated location" in a government guesthouse belonging to the National University of Defense Technology in Hunan's provincial capital, Changsha.
Subjected to abuse including deprivation of food and water, Xie was tortured again after being moved to the police-run Changsha No. 2 Detention Center following his formal arrest on Jan. 9, 2016.
Xie was subjected to confinement in a "hanging chair" made of plastic chairs stacked high above the ground for hours at a time, so that his legs swelled up and he was in excruciating pain, he told his lawyers.
He was also deprived of sleep and repeatedly beaten, humiliated, and taunted with death threats against his family, according to copious and detailed notes made public from meetings with his lawyers.
In Hong Kong, activists demonstrated outside the ruling Chinese Communist Party's Central Liaison Office in the city over the plight of free-speech activist Wu Gan, nicknamed "The Butcher," alongside dozens of other lawyers, associated activists, and law-firm staff in a police operation launched in July 2015.
Fuzhou rights activist Zhuang Lei said Wu's elderly father Xu Xiaoshun has also been detained on public order charges after he spoke out about his son's detention.
Wu is among around a dozen detainees in the crackdown now facing subversion charges.
Xu's lawyer Lin Hongnan said there is no evidence against his client.
"The police should drop this case because they don't have any evidence," Lin told RFA. "The prosecution should never have pursued it in the first place, and the court should find him not guilty."
Fellow rights activist You Jingyou said the authorities have been holding Wu for more than a year, with no indication of a trial date, probably because he is refusing to provide a "confession."
"I don't think that this is guilt by association; I think that they are using [Wu's father] as a hostage," You said. "The Butcher has always been innocent, but they want him to 'confess' to his 'crimes'."
"That's why they are detaining his relatives."
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing and Lam Kwok-lap for Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.