A court in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangxi has suspended the trial of three activists after their attorneys cited violations of their legal rights during detention, lawyers and relatives said Tuesday.
Liu Ping, Wei Zhongping and Li Sihua were detained longer than the three months allowed under China's criminal procedural law, their lawyers said after Monday's trial was cut short by their protest.
They were detained in April on suspicion of "incitement to subvert state power," and later additionally charged with "unlawful assembly." Separately, Liu and Wei have been charged with "gathering a crowd to disrupt public order" and "using a cult to pervert the course of justice."
The activists had held up signs in the street to demand that high-ranking officials disclose their assets.
Their six lawyers, Zhang Xuezhong, Zheng Jianwei, Liu Jinbin, Chen Guangwu, Pang Kun, and Li Jinxing called on Monday for the presiding judges at Xinyu's Yushui District People's Court to step down, citing a lawsuit filed on Oct. 15 protesting the activists' prolonged detention ahead of the trial.
Liu, Wei and Li then effectively dismissed their legal team, saying that their case hadn't received a fair hearing, and the attorneys walked out.
Zheng, acting for Liu, said on Tuesday: "The court was unable to support an effective defense on the part of the lawyers, and didn't respect due process," he said. "The three defendants then dissolved the obligations of their six lawyers."
Liu's daughter Liao Yuemin called the proceedings "ridiculous," saying her mother looked very unwell.
"I thought her appearance had totally changed," Liao said. "She is really, really thin."
"I called out to my mother during a recess, to encourage her and tell her I love her, but I was told to shut up by police, and two policemen standing nearby dragged me out of the courtroom," she said.
"As a relative, I think this trial was ridiculous, and it made me very angry."
The overseas-based group Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) said in an emailed statement on Tuesday that the presiding judge didn't allow the defendants to make their statements, cutting off Li Sihua when he began describing how he was beaten while detained, and repeatedly interrupting Liu Ping when she tried to speak.
Lawyers who raised specific concerns were issued with warnings, and then prevented from speaking again.
As the defense lawyers walked out, the judges scrambled to control order, finally announcing that the trial was suspended, and would resume at a later date, CHRD said.
Liu, Wei and Li now have 15 days to hire new lawyers, but have vowed neither to accept court-appointed lawyers, nor to conduct their own defense, in a trial which has already been delayed since an original date set in July, it said.
Liao said security around the court building in Yushui district was tight. "They had sealed off the streets for several dozen meters so that no one could even walk past it," she said.
"They wouldn't let a single person past, and they detained a number of people outside the court, including four friends from Guangdong."
"There were several dozen people watching my home," Liao added.
Police in the activists' home city of Xinyu police placed a number of activists, as well as some of Liu’s family members, under tight surveillance and house arrest, CHRD said.
Police also prevented activists from other parts of China from traveling to Xinyu and detained invited witness Liu Xizhen, it said.
A laid-off worker who gained the backing of more than 30 people for her nomination in elections to the district-level People's Congress in 2012, Liu Ping is no stranger to official harassment.
In March 2012, she was held for several weeks in an unofficial detention center, or "black jail," strip-searched, and beaten, rights groups reported at the time.
Before her candidacy for district People's Congress in Xinyu city was rejected, Liu had mustered a strong following among laid-off and retired workers, as well as existing workers who complained of poor conditions in their jobs.
The U.S.-based Human Rights in China (HRIC) said in a recent statement that Beijing has stepped up a crackdown on rights defenders and citizen activists this year, and is now targeting "even moderate voices" calling for greater official transparency and accountability, citing the Xinyu dissidents as an example.
Meanwhile, CHRD said last month it had confirmed the criminal detentions or disappearances of at least 58 individuals in the ongoing crackdown on anti-corruption activists, about half of whom have been formally arrested.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xin Yu for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.