Authorities in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong have postponed the trial of a prominent rights lawyer after his defense team boycotted the court session in protest of violations of legal procedure they said limited their access to evidence files.
Yang Maodong, better known by his pen-name Guo Feixiong, had been due to stand trial Friday on charges of "gathering a crowd to disrupt public order" linked to his role in press freedom protests outside the Southern Newspaper Group in January 2013.
Both Guo and co-defendant Sun Desheng have told the court that they would remain silent without their lawyers, prompting court officials to reschedule, lawyers said.
Guo's defense lawyer Zhang Xuezhong said the defense team had made the decision after repeatedly requesting the evidence from officials at the Tianhe District People's Court in Guangzhou.
"They said they'd have to report back to their superiors," Zhang said. "They said they'd look into it, but they hadn't done it by the time the trial had begun, which means they didn't want to give it to us."
Group of supporters
The trial had drawn a group of supporters, who arrived outside the court buildings early on Friday, only to find a strong security presence as soon as they exited a nearby subway station.
"We were stopped as soon as we got to the gates of the court buildings," supporter Li Xiaoling told RFA.
"There were four of us, and so many police blocking our way," she said. "There were three police lines, and [one of us], Luo Tingfeng, was detained as soon as he stepped across one of them."
"The same thing happened to Ma Shengfen, who was dragged away by police at a distance of about 200 meters from the court building," Li said.
According to Zhang, the authorities have no evidence to substantiate the charges, and the defense lawyers have been denied access to files held by the prosecution.
"Any case must rest on the available evidence, but the court has refused to allow us to read all the files," Zhang told RFA.
"If we can't see the evidence, then the trial is meaningless, so we refused to appear in court," he said.
"Guo Feixiong's actions have broken no law of this land, and the authorities are pursuing this case for some other reason, of which I know nothing,"
Fellow defense team member Chen Guangwu said Guo had set out his own views in a statement handed to Chen on Thursday, inside the detention center.
"The court has refused to allow the defense lawyers to make copies of digital evidence files held on eight data disks," Guo, 48, said in the statement.
"This is a serious violation of clause 38 of the Criminal Procedure Law."
"With their right to copy evidence stripped from them, the lawyers have no way of making an effective case for the defense," he wrote.
He said Guangzhou's Tianhe District Court had required that lawyers use only computers provided by the court during the trial, in breach of its own usual practices.
Guo also called for all five defendants accused of similar crimes to be tried together, rather than separately.
Case sent back
Guo was detained in Aug. 8, 2013 after he petitioned the government to ratify U.N. human rights treaties.
However, his case has been sent back for further investigation twice by the state prosecution service in Guangzhou's Tianhe district, leading to repeated delays in the trial.
Beijing-based rights activist Hu Jia said the authorities are targeting Guo because of his formidable track record in helping the most disadvantaged people in today's China.
"This guy is tough; he's a mover and a shaker," Hu said. "The authorities are most afraid of people who actually organize street protests right now, rather than people who just write [critical] articles."
"Guo has organized street demonstrations in eight southern cities calling on officials to make details of their wealth public," he said.
"In 2006, Guo was deeply involved in the campaign by [Guangdong's] Taishi village to remove their village leaders [amid graft allegations], providing legal assistance," Hu said.
"He also gave updates on his blog for online readers about events in Taishi village as they happened," he said, in reference to violent clashes between armed police and local protesters that ended the campaign.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Friday called on Beijing to release Guo and Sun.
"Much of Guo's and Sun's work echoed authorities' stated policy goals, such as fighting corruption, so where's the evidence they violated any Chinese law?" HRW China director Sophie Richardson said in a statement.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service and by Gao Shan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.