Authorities in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong have placed dozens of activists under surveillance after they planned to attend the subversion trial of three prominent rights lawyers on Friday.
Tang Jingling, Wang Qingying, and Yuan Xinting, known as the Guangzhou Three, will stand trial on Friday at the Guangzhou Intermediate People's Court for "incitement to subvert state power" after being held in a police detention center for more than a year.
Guangzhou-based political activist Li Biyun was detained by state security police on Wednesday evening after she tried to organize a dinner meeting with fellow activists aiming to go to the court buildings to support the three lawyers on Friday, Li's sister said.
Li Biyun has been taken back to her hometown outside Guangzhou, while police have left a surveillance team outside her sister's home to stop her leaving again, her sister Li Caiyun said.
"There are people watching us outside the gates of our building," Li Caiyun said. "I think it's because the trial of Tang Jingling opens tomorrow, and they want to prevent her from attending it."
She said the sisters' movements weren't being restricted within their hometown, however.
"We can go where we like, just so long as we don't go to Guangzhou," Li Caiyun said.
Tang's wife Wang Yanfang told RFA that she has been forced to go on an out-of-town "vacation" with state security police ahead of the trial.
"I am already being vacationed," Wang said. "Some people are under house arrest in their homes, while others have been called in for a 'chat'."
"They have called up some people directly, to warn them that they mustn't go [to the court] tomorrow," she said.
China's embattled legal profession ended 2014 with at least seven prominent rights attorneys behind bars, in one of its worst years since its resurgence in the 1980s, rights groups said.
'A political trial'
Tang, Wang, and Yuan were criminally detained on May 16, 2014 initially for "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," but the charges were later changed to the more serious "incitement to subvert state power."
Tang's defense attorney Zhang Xuezhong said his client has maintained his innocence of the charges against him.
"He won't plead guilty because he believes that everything he did was right and proper," Zhang said. "His self-confidence and inner conviction are probably why he is in such good spirits."
But Zhang said the chances of a not-guilty verdict for Tang look slim.
"This is an obviously political trial, in which charges have been concocted out of thin air," he said.
Yuan's lawyer Chang Boyang said his client fully expects to go to jail.
"He is beginning to feel more confident, and told me that he wants to speak out in court in his own defense," Chang said.
"He knows he will be sent to prison, so he is psychologically prepared for that," he said. "He has a good attitude and he wants to play a part in the trial."
Chang said Yuan's mental health appears to have improved greatly compared with a few months ago, when he told his lawyer he was being mistreated and tortured in the detention center as police tried to force a "confession" from him.
Support in Hong Kong
Activists in Hong Kong hit out at the charges against the three lawyers.
Deputy chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, Richard Choi, said "incitement to subvert state power" is frequently used to target activists or critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
"In recent years, they will use 'picking quarrels and stirring up trouble' if they want to hand out a lighter punishment, and 'incitement to subvert state power' if they want to give a heavier one," Choi said.
He said the lawyers could face lengthy jail terms.
"We know that Liu Xiaobo was given 11 years for incitement to subvert state power, so we are worried that Tang Jingling and the others will receive heavy sentences," he said.
A signatory of Charter 08, a document calling for sweeping political reforms that saw its co-author, Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, jailed for 11 years, Tang founded a nonviolent civil disobedience movement in 2006.
His lawyer’s license was revoked in 2005 after he supported residents of Guangdong's Taishi village in their campaign to have corrupt local officials removed from office.
Tang, Wang, and Yuan were detained amid a nationwide roundup of dissidents ahead of the politically sensitive 25th anniversary of the military crackdown on the 1989 student-led pro-democracy movement.
They are among 13 people who remain behind bars for marking the 25th anniversary of the bloodshed last year, according to the overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network, which collates reports from rights groups inside China.
The others include veteran political journalist Gao Yu, jailed for seven years in April for "leaking state secrets overseas," and prominent rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who faces up to 10 years' imprisonment for each of the ethnic hatred and public order charges against him.
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.