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World & Nation

China puts rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang on trial as police scuffle with diplomats and protesters

Pu Zhiqiang

Pu Zhiqiang talks to the media at the compound of dissident artist Ai Weiwei in Beijing on July 20, 2012.

(Ed Jones / AFP/Getty Images)

Chinese authorities tried one of the country’s most prominent human rights lawyers behind closed doors on Monday morning, as police roughed up protesters, journalists and diplomats who gathered outside of a Beijing courthouse hoping to observe the proceedings.

Prosecutors have charged Pu Zhiqiang, 50, with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and “inciting ethnic hatred” over seven microblog posts that he penned between 2011 and 2014.

Pu, known as China’s “Giant Lawyer” for his commanding height and baritone voice, has gained a massive following online as a bold and acerbic critic of government policy. He could face up to eight years in prison; human rights groups have called his case a government attack on free expression and dissent.

“[Pu] admitted the seven microblogs were written by him, there was no issue with it, this is a fact,” Pu’s lawyer, Mo Shaoping, told the Reuters news agency. “Secondly, he said that if these microblog posts had caused injury to other people, he apologizes for it. Thirdly, he had no intention to incite ethnic hatred or pick quarrels and provoke trouble.” 

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The court has not yet announced a verdict or sentence in the case.

On Monday morning, dozens of police, uniformed and plainclothes, guarded the streets surrounding the court, wearing down coats and anti-pollution face masks. Soon after the trial began, police began violently shoving a crowd of journalists and diplomats -- including representatives from the U.S., European Union and Australia -- away from the courthouse gates.

The U.S. Embassy is “concerned” about the “vague charges” leveled against Pu, Dan Biers, deputy political counselor at the embassy, told a small scrum of reporters as police shoved and shouted “go” to drown out his words. “Lawyers and civil society leaders such as Mr. Pu should not be subject to continuing repression but should be allowed to contribute to the building of prosperous and stable China,” he said.

“We urge Chinese authorities to release Mr. Pu,” Biers said, repeating his statement about 100 feet down the road, “and call upon China to uphold fundamental human civil rights and fair-trial guarantees as enshrined in the [Chinese] constitution and its international human rights commitments.” 

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The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China said in a statement that the authorities’ “effort to deter news coverage is a gross violation of Chinese government rules governing foreign correspondents.”

“Legal coverage is a normal part of journalistic work and is expected grow as China pushes to develop its rule of law,“ it said.

About a block away from the courthouse, a few dozen protesters raised signs denouncing Chinese police and calling for democracy and improved human rights. “Pu Zhiqiang is not guilty!” they chanted. At least two protesters were detained.

Authorities detained Pu in May after he participated in a private commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, when government-dispatched soldiers opened fire on peaceful pro-democracy protesters, killing hundreds. He was formally arrested in June.

Activists and human rights groups say that since 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping has presided over the country’s most intense crackdown on dissent since the years following the massacre. In July, authorities rounded up about 200 human rights lawyers in a major nationwide sweep; many of them remain behind bars. 

“This is a government that has had not the slightest hesitation in the last two years about detaining, disappearing, torturing, and/or prosecuting people who have done nothing wrong,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “It doesn’t matter if they’re labor rights leaders, feminists or human rights lawyers.

“This is less how government functions and more like a season of ‘The Sopranos,’” she continued.

As a lawyer, Pu was known for assiduously keeping his activism within the boundaries of Chinese law. Since his formal arrest, authorities have leveled and then subsequently dropped two charges against him -- “illegally obtaining citizens’ private information” and “inciting separatism.”

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“Of course they grabbed him first and then got to work on figuring out why,” said Perry Link, a China scholar at UC Riverside. “When they were snooping for evidence, there were big weighty things that they were snooping for -- he visited Japan at one point and met some Japanese officials, and they seemed to be brewing a case for traitor-hood, which could carry the death penalty. Then they were snooping around his supposed girlfriends for sexual deviance. The other one was tax evasion. ... On those three issues they apparently came up empty.”

On Dec. 8, the prosecutor’s office announced that Pu would be charged in connection with seven posts on China’s popular microblog Sina Weibo. One, written in 2011, mocks a bungled government news conference that followed a deadly high-speed train crash in the eastern city of Wenzhou; another mocks Mao Tse-tung’s grandson, Mao Xinyu, a notoriously inept major general in the People’s Liberation Army.

Four of the posts concern Beijing’s handling of ethnic tensions in the western regions Xinjiang and Tibet. One expresses outrage at an official regulation forcing Tibetan monasteries to display portraits of Communist leaders; another calls a 2013 terror attack by ethnic Uighurs on a southern Chinese train station a “result” of repressive government policies, not a “cause.”

On Monday morning, two recent graduates from the China University of Political Science and Law, Pu’s alma mater, quietly snapped pictures of the courthouse with their phones. Both wore masks to protect themselves against the thick air pollution that has intermittently smothered the city in recent months.

“We’re disappointed, because it still feels so dangerous to follow in [Pu’s] footsteps, to become a rights lawyer,” said one, a young man in a black jacket who requested anonymity for fear of official reprisals. 

“We can brag and say that we’ll continue his mission,” he continued. “But the political environment is like the weather. So we can only take things step by step.”

Tommy Yang in the Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

Follow @JRKaiman on Twitter for news out of China

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