Authorities in the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin on Wednesday expelled from a courtroom two lawyers representing members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement after the lawyers asked the judge and prosecuting officers to be removed from the case.
Falun Gong practitioners Wen Yingzhou and Zhang Haixia, who are married to each other, stood trial on Wednesday at Harbin's Xiangfang District Court over their involvement in what the ruling Chinese Communist Party has designated an "evil cult."
But their two defense attorneys, Dong Qianyong and Wang Yu were roughly expelled by security guards after they applied for the judge and the prosecution to be withdrawn from the case.
"I, together with Dong Qianyong and Li Dunyong were acting in defense of Zhang Haixia and Wen Yingzhou's trial for 'undermining law enforcement,'" Wang Yu told RFA.
"During the trial, Dong Qianyong was kicked out of the court by judge Yuan Yue after he applied for recusal [of judge, court officials and state prosecutors]," Wang said.
"Dong was dragged away by a courtroom guard ... who locked an arm around his neck, as he was gathering his stuff together," she added.
"When I continued to bring up the recusal application and the violent law enforcement, I was also bundled out of the courtroom," Wang said.
"Lawyer Dong and I are at the prosecutor's office filing a complaint right now."
Wang said the defense team is concerned about the health of both Wen and Zhang, who had been dragged to court in spite of warnings from a hospital that they are in critical condition.
"We wonder whether the court and the prosecution are capable of providing a fair trial here," Wang said. "We have our suspicions about that."
"Our clients are in a very poor state of health right now, both physically and mentally," she added.
Wen and Zhang were detained by state security police on June 18, and their Harbin home turned over, and computers and other equipment confiscated.
Zhang had a heart attack and was taken to hospital, and later held in the Harbin No. 2 Detention Center.
Wen, meanwhile, was held in the Xiangfang Detention Center.
The third defense attorney, Li Dunyong, said his client had only told police he is a Falun Gong practitioner in order to lessen the pressure on his wife.
"He did have a few books, and they did get the Falun Gong satellite channel, but Wen Yingzhou never followed Falun Gong; he was framed," Li told RFA.
"His wife recently tried to get him to read the books, so he did, but he didn't believe in what was in them," he said.
"He has never practiced it, but he confessed because he thought that would take the heat off his wife," Li added.
"He confessed to stuff he didn't do."
Li said Zhang has been force-fed while in detention after beginning a hunger strike in protest at her treatment.
The government banned Falun Gong participation after the group staged a massive silent protest outside the main leadership compound in Beijing in 1999.
State-run media have since portrayed Falun Gong as a fringe, fanatical sect, often referring to it as an "evil cult."
Human rights groups estimate that hundreds of Falun Gong followers have been jailed and tens of thousands sent to labor camps without trial since then.
Meanwhile, Chinese police have arrested nearly 1,000 suspected members of another cult, the Eastern Lightning Quannengshen cult, the ministry of public security announced on Tuesday.
Among the 500 suspects detained, nearly 100 are organizers and key members, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
The authorities have already charged five members with murder over the killing of a woman at a McDonald's outlet in east China's Shandong Province on May 28.
The killing, a video of which was posted online, was sparked when the woman refused to give her telephone number to cult representatives amid a new recruitment drive, Xinhua said.
"Quannengshen cheats people, illegally collects money and violates the law under the guise of religion," the police statement said.
"A series of acts by its members have harmed people's lives and property and disrupted social stability."
Founded in the 1990s in the central province of Henan, the group believes that its founder's wife, Zhao Weishan, is a reincarnation of Christ.
While both groups have been designated an evil cult by the authorities, Eastern Lightning members, unlike Falun Gong followers, have gained a reputation among ordinary people for violence and shady financial dealings.
According to Bob Fu of the U.S.-based Christian rights group ChinaAid, the negative news about Eastern Lightning is largely credible.
"Eastern Lightning is clearly heretical, from a Protestant point of view," Fu said.
"A lot of house churches in China have had dealings with them, and they have used violence to force people to join them, as well as other methods," he said.
Reported by Qiao Long and Shi Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service and Grace Kei Lai-see for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.