Three police officers in the northern Chinese province of Shanxi went on trial on Monday for the killing of a woman during a dispute over unpaid wages, although at least one has denied any responsibility for her death, lawyers and family members said.
Wang Wenjun, Guo Tiewei and Ren Haibo stood trial for "intentional injury" and "abuse of power" in connection with the death of Zhou Xiuyun at the Intermediate People's Court in the provincial capital Taiyuan at 9 a.m. local time.
Zhou, 47, was found unconscious after being thrown to the ground at a construction site in Zhoukou city in the central province of Henan on Dec. 13, 2014, after clashes between police and her family.
She died the next day in hospital. The policemen also stand accused of breaking the ribs of her husband Wang Youzhi.
Wang Wenjun faces both charges, while Guo is charged with "abuse of power" and Ren with "intentional injury."
However, Wang Daogang, legal representative for Zhou's son Wang Kuilin, said the family's lawyers had been denied entry to the courtroom.
"I and attorney Cheng Hai were instructed on Dec. 30 to render legal assistance, and this has been going on for five months," Wang Daogang told RFA on Monday.
"After negotiations, we asked a different lawyer to act as representative, and we continued to act as legal advisers, and there should be no problem under the law with us being allowed to attend the trial," Wang Daogang said.
But he said neither he nor Cheng had been allowed inside the courtroom, adding that the family was unlikely to get justice under such circumstances.
"There are clearly some problems here," Wang Daogang said. "The only way there would be a just outcome would be if this trial was held in open court."
He said invisible "influences" are clearly at work behind the scenes in such a politically sensitive case, which comes amid growing public anger over widespread abuses of power by China's law enforcement agencies.
Denial of charges
During the first day of the trial, Wang Wenjun strenuously and repeatedly denied both charges against him, Cheng Hai told RFA after the first day of the trial, which is set to last for six days.
"Wang Wenjun is pleading not guilty, and says the death by beating had nothing to do with him," Cheng said.
"On the matter of Zhou Xiuyun's broken neck from strangling, he said he had only used minimal force; that's how he denied it," he said.
"As for the beating of Wang Youzhi, he said he couldn't remember clearly. His whole attitude was very dismissive; he insisted he was not guilty the whole way through," Cheng said.
Zhou's nephew Pu Xinfeng said six family members were allowed into the courtroom for the trial, compared with the 10 promised by the authorities.
"They told us that only close relatives could attend the trial, but we have no idea what constitutes a close relative," Pu said.
"[At first], neither [Zhou's daughter] Wang Qinghe nor Wang Kuilin were allowed to attend the trial; the Intermediate Court wouldn't allow it; I don't know why," he said.
Later, the authorities had allowed them both in, but then Wang Qinghe was taken to hospital after fainting, he told RFA.
Motionless on the ground
Photos of Zhou lying motionless on the ground, while a police officer apparently trod on her hair, went viral on Chinese social media sites, sparking widespread public outrage, the official Xinhua news agency said.
The dispute involved around 29,000 yuan (U.S. $4,700) in back-salary owed to Zhou's son Wang Kuilin and his father, it said.
Wang and two colleagues had gone to the construction site where they had been working on Dec. 13 to demand the money, but clashed with security guards who refused to let them in, the agency quoted Wang as saying.
Wang then called his parents, sparking a brawl with police, who are also accused of breaking Wang Youzhi's ribs.
The Taiyuan municipal government has denied that the dispute was linked to unpaid wages, saying Wang and his father weren't wearing the correct safety gear and ID badges.
Around 100 people gathered outside the court buildings on Monday in a show of support for Zhou's family, supporters said.
Hebei petitioner Wei Yuzhuo said she didn't know Zhou personally, but that she was there in solidarity and protest over the routine abuse of police power in China.
Wei said security was tight, with a strong police presence outside the court building.
"There are about 300 [police officers] here," she said. "There are private security vehicles, riot police vans and anti-terrorism vans here; more than 20 vehicles."
"A lot of riot police are carrying guns."
Fellow activist Wu Bin, who was also outside the court, said the entire street had been cordoned off by rows of police officers.
"The whole place is under security lockdown ... there are even anti-terrorism vehicles here," Wu said.
Last July, China executed police officer Hu Ping for shooting dead a pregnant woman in the southwestern region of Guangxi, in a rare case of official retribution over growing police violence.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.