Authorities in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou on Friday began the trials of two prominent rights activists on public order offenses, as their relatives and lawyers hit out at court officials over a lack of a fair hearing.
Judges in Guangzhou's Tianhe's District People's Court refused to allow lawyers defending Yang Maodong, better known by his nickname Guo Feixiong, and Sun Sihuo, better known as Sun Desheng, to speak or raise objections during their trial on charges of "gathering a crowd to disrupt public order," lawyers told RFA.
The two men have been held in police detention since being detained in 2013, after taking part in street protests for press freedom and calling for greater government transparency and protection for human rights.
Guo's sister Yang Maoping, who attended the trial, said she had little faith that her brother would receive fair treatment in the case against him.
"I didn't really understand this until I attended this trial, but the authorities are really just framing [my brother]," Yang said during a recess.
Zhang Lei, a defense lawyer for Guo said he was repeatedly cut off and interrupted by judges during the one-day trial, making it hard to mount a proper defense.
"We were cut off and prevented from finishing what we had to say, in particular during the morning session," Zhang told RFA.
"We were cut off every time we lodged an objection, made a request for a larger courtroom or an open trial so that all those who wanted to attend the trial could do so," he said.
"I objected very strongly to this."
According to the indictment, the charge against Guo was based on his participation in anti-censorship demonstrations outside the cutting-edge Southern Weekend newspaper offices in Guangzhou in early 2013, where he held up a placard and made a speech in favor of press freedom.
Guo's placards called on officials to publicly disclose their assets, and for the Chinese government to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which it signed in 1998.
Sun was also accused of holding up placards and "flash mob" activities, inciting crowds to disturb the order of a public place, it said.
The indictment also accused Guo of organizing others, including Sun, to post online photos of themselves engaged in similar peaceful expression in eight other Chinese cities.
However, it gave no details of how their actions had affected public order.
Both Guo and Sun are pleading not guilty to the charges, but were also cut off by judges when they tried to speak in their own defense, their lawyers said.
Sun's lawyer Chen Jinxue said he had also complained about being cut off while speaking during the trial.
"The refusal to allow the defense and the defendant to finish what they are saying has clearly prejudiced this trial in terms of its fairness and impartiality," Chen said.
He said the trial had been held in the smallest chamber of the Tianhe court buildings, and that the authorities had tightly controlled who was allowed to attend.
"A large number of people tried to get courtroom passes to come in, but they wouldn't even allow foreign consular officials based in Guangzhou to come in," Chen said.
"The Tianhe court is surrounded by police, who are stopping and checking the occupants of all passing vehicles."
"This is basically a secret trial," he added.
Chen said most of the witnesses called by the defense had been forced to leave town ahead of the trial, under a process known as "being vacationed."
"For example, Ou Shaokun from Guangzhou was taken away yesterday, while [writer] Ye Du and Wu Yangwei were both taken from their homes this morning," he said.
More than 100 police officers were dispatched to guard the court buildings and prevent supporters from approaching, including state security police and plainclothes officers, eyewitnesses said.
"It was pretty scary how many police were there," veteran democracy activist Ouyang Jinghua, who traveled from the central province of Hunan to support the two activists, said.
"There were police guarding all the intersections and all the subway exits nearby," Ouyang said. "They wouldn't let us through; we were put onto a police vehicle and taken away."
Ouyang said he had counted 12 supporters of Guo and Sun at a police-run "legal education center," where they were taken. He said nine people were eventually released, but three remained in the unofficial detention center.
"We had to register our names and sign a declaration promising not to return to the court," Ouyang said. "Then two police officers dragged me to the bus station and demanded that I leave Guangzhou immediately."
Rights groups have called on the ruling Chinese Communist Party to drop the charges against Guo and Sun, saying they were merely exercising their right to peaceful expression.
"Beijing's assault on civil society seems to know no bounds as peaceful activists are increasingly subject to criminal prosecutions," Sophie Richardson, China Director at the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement.
"At what point will the Chinese government realize individuals like Guo Feixiong and Sun Desheng are allies in strengthening the rule of law, not enemies of the state?"
Guo and Sun were originally to be tried on Sept. 12, but their lawyers boycotted the proceedings, saying they were given too little notice to prepare a case.
Lawyers say Guo has been denied access to outside exercise, during nearly 500 days in police detention, while Sun was wearing manacles and leg irons for an alleged breach of detention center rules.
In early January 2013, activists, journalists, and academics faced off with the authorities after the Southern Weekend newspaper was forced to change a New Year editorial calling for political reform into a tribute praising Communist Party rule.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.