Authorities in the Chinese capital on Friday indicted a prominent rights lawyer for "incitement to racial hatred" after holding him in detention for more than a year, paving the way for a trial, his lawyer said.
Pu Zhiqiang, 50, is being charged with "incitement to racial hatred," and "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," a year after his detention following an event marking the anniversary of the military crackdown on the 1989 student-led pro-democracy movement.
Previous charges, including "incitement to subvert state power," "incitement to separatism," and "illegally obtaining citizens' information" have apparently been dropped, Pu's defense lawyer Shang Baojun told RFA.
"The second division of the Beijing municipal procuratorate formally indicted him today, although he hasn't yet received the indictment document," Shang said.
"There are two charges on the indictment ... the police charge sheet previously listed four charges," he said. "How do I evaluate that? I don't know yet."
Shang said he plans to visit Pu in the detention center soon, to discuss strategy ahead of the trial, for which a date has yet to be set.
But he said Pu is highly likely to reject the reduced charges in the same manner as the old ones.
"Previously, he has totally rejected all of the charges in a number of conversations," Shang said.But he said that a reduction in the number of charges could be a good sign.
"At the very least, we feel a bit better because two charges looks a lot better than four," Shang said.
Shang said Pu's wife had expressed "extreme disappointment" at the indictment during a recent phone call, however.
Pu's arrest on May 6, 2014, on public order charges and "causing trouble" after he attended an discussion forum that called for a reappraisal of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, drew international condemnation, including from Washington.
But China said last week that the U.S. should pay closer attention to its own rights record before criticizing others.
Respected but outspoken figure
Before his arrest, Pu was a highly respected and outspoken figure among China's embattled rights attorneys, known for representing high-profile dissidents like artist Ai Weiwei and for his public opposition to the now-abolished "re-education through labor" camps.
A second member of Pu's defense team, Mo Shaoping, said it is too early to say whether the dropping of two of the charges means he will likely receive a light sentence. Chinese courts rarely acquit suspects.
"It's hard to say, because the penalty for picking quarrels and stirring up trouble is five years maximum, rising to 10 years in serious cases," Mo said.
"As for the so-called incitement to racial hatred charge, that's three years maximum, rising to 10 years in serious cases, so 10 years is a possibility for either charge," he said.
Overseas rights group Amnesty International called on Beijing to drop the charges against Pu, however.
"The charges against Pu Zhiqiang are another act of political persecution," the group's China researcher William Nee said in a statement on Friday. "The chances of him receiving a fair trial are close to zero."
"With this prosecution, the authorities are sending a warning to all lawyers that take up ‘sensitive’ cases to fall in line," Nee said.
"The Chinese government is blatantly violating his freedom of expression and attempting to silence an independent voice," he said.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ka Pa and Lam Lok-tung for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.