Authorities in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan on Monday put on trial veteran rights activist Huang Qi on state secrets charges, while detaining dozens of his supporters who tried to travel to the court buildings in Mianyang city.
Huang, 56, stood trial beginning at 8.30 a.m. on charges of "leaking state secrets," and "leaking state secrets overseas" at the Mianyang Intermediate People's Court behind closed doors, amid a strong police
presence outside the building.
He was recently identified by Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) as one of 10 citizen journalists in danger of dying in detention.
One of Huang's former defense attorneys, Liu Zhengqing, said he wasn't informed of the trial beforehand, with the authorities saying that its content involved matters of "national security."
Liu was warned off further involvement in Huang's case, lost his license to practice as a lawyer, and forced to sign a declaration to that effect, he said.
"It's not convenient for me to talk right now; I'm not able to give interviews," he said. "I wasn't able to appear in court, and I wasn't informed of the trial by the court."
Huang, who founded the Tianwang rights website, has repeatedly denied the charges and refused to "confess."
His mother Pu Wenqing, who has repeatedly called for Huang's release on urgent medical grounds, and who says the charges are politically motivated, with no evidence to back them up, has been incommunicado since her detention on Dec. 7 at a railway station in Beijing, where she had gone to campaign for his release.
Li Jinglin, another member of Huang's defense team, implied that the trial had only lasted a few hours.
"Even [the time that the trial ended] is secret," Li told RFA. "I have now [left the court]," he said when contacted on Monday afternoon.
Foreign diplomats from several nations arrived in Mianyang on Sunday in the hope of attending the trial, but weren't admitted, while local government, police and judicial websites and social media accounts made no mention of the trial.
Forced vacations for supporters
He Jiawei, a rights activist from the central province of Hunan, was detained by more than 10 state security police on arrival at Mianyang airport on Sunday, who threw a hood over his head and put him on a train to the northern city of Xi'an, fellow activist Ou Biaofeng said via his Twitter account.
Huang's fellow activists Liang Kaixuan, Wei Wenyuan, Chen Mingyu, Hu Guiqin, Tianwang technician Pu Fei and Chengdu writer Tan Zuoren were all taken on enforced "vacations" to out-of-town tourist locations ahead of the trial.
All detained activists were released by 5.00 p.m. on Monday.
Rights attorney Sui Muqing, who formerly also represented Huang, said the activist is innocent.
"Huang Qi is totally innocent, and has been framed," Sui said. "This is purely a case of political persecution, and his future looks pretty bleak now that they have brought these charges."
Sichuan rights defender and petitioner Xie Junbiao said that more than a dozen fellow petitioners had been placed under house arrest ahead of the trial.
"About 15 or 16 people went to the trial at the Mianyang Intermediate People's Court, but they were all stopped," Xie said. "Their local police stations are now bringing them back home."
"I had a friend of mine go over to take a look at the court buildings, and they said that the whole area has been sealed off by riot police," she said. "They won't let anyone in."
"All the apartments nearby had their windows shut, and they weren't allowed to drying their washing," Xie said.
Huang's Tianwang website had a strong track record for highlighting petitions and complaints against official wrongdoing, and injustices meted out to the most vulnerable in society, including forced evictees, parents of children who died in the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake, and other peaceful critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Elderly mother dragged away
A second petitioner, who asked to remain anonymous, said she was placed under house arrest by her local police on Friday.
"I am now under surveillance and guard by [police] here," she said.
U.S.-based rights activist and legal scholar Chen Guangcheng said the ruling Chinese Communist Party seems determined to cause Huang's death.
"It's very clear that they are trying to kill him, using repeated jail sentences and detentions in the past few years to bludgeon him to death," Chen told RFA.
He called on U.S. officials to bring sanctions against the officials and police involved in Huang's case, under the Global Magnitsky Act.
"We stand entirely ready to supply evidence to the U.S. State Department and call on them to punish the perpetrators, whether they gave the orders or implemented them, under the Global Magnitsky Act," Chen said.
Huang's mother Pu Wenqing, who is in her eighties, was stopped by "interceptors" from Sichuan during a trip to Beijing, where she was thrown to the ground and dragged away, the rights website Weiquanwang reported at the time.
Video footage of her detention showed Pu lying on the ground shouting: "They're beating me! They're beating me!" as the person shooting the video comments: "Huang's mother has been pushed to the ground by interceptors."
Huang, founder of the Tianwang rights website, which won an RSF prize in 2016, was arrested on Nov. 28 of that year and is being held at the Mianyang Detention Center.
Fourteen rights groups called for Huang's immediate release on urgent medical grounds ahead of a United Nations review of China's rights record last year, warning that his condition is so serious that there is an immediate threat to his life.
Reported by Ng Yik-tung and Lau Siu-fung for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.