Liu Xiaobo: China's top pro-democracy dissident goes on trial

The trial of leading Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo for 'state subversion' lasted just a few hours Wednesday as supporters and diplomats barred from attending thronged the courtroom in near-freezing cold. A verdict is expected Friday.

David Gray/Reuters
Petitioners hold up passports and banners outside the courthouse where Liu Xiaobo, one of China's most prominent dissidents, goes on trial in Beijing, Wednesday.
Kin Cheung/AP/File
In this Oct. 23 file photo, pro-democracy activists hold pictures of Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who was arrested after co-authoring a bold manifesto urging civil rights and political reform, outside the US Consulate General in Hong Kong.

The subversion trial of Liu Xiaobo, China's most prominent dissident, opened and shut in Beijing on Wednesday in strict secrecy without an immediate outcome. The verdict is now expected to be postponed until Christmas Day.

The delay and the degree of secrecy – even Mr. Liu’s wife was barred from the courtroom – contrast sharply with the widespread international attention that the case against the Tiananmen-era pro-democracy activist has drawn.

It is "quite unusual" for a Chinese criminal trial to be left hanging this way, said Teng Biao, a prominent human rights lawyer and one of 60 people who stood outside the courtroom Wednesday in near-freezing temperatures before he and seven others were removed by plainclothes police. “Although I cannot predict the outcome, it is very likely that Liu Xiaobo will be guilty and imprisoned for at least five years under Chinese criminal law," he told The Monitor by telephone.

Liu's attorney Ding Xikui, speaking to The Monitor by telephone in defiance of a court order barring press interviews after he left the roughly three-hour morning trial, said the court would announce a verdict on Friday.

Held for a year without trial

Liu faces up to 15 years in prison, the maximum sentence for "incitement to subvert state power," a catchall charge often used by Chinese prosecutors to silence critics of the one-party government.

The essayist and literary critic was detained on Dec. 8, 2008, apparently for his role in drafting "Charter 08," a call for greater democracy in China. The charter, initially signed by 300 people, was published on the Internet two days later to mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It has since attracted more than 10,000 signatures, mostly from mainland Chinese.

Meanwhile, Liu was held in a secret location for six months, then formally arrested and transferred to Beijing's Detention Center No.1.

During Wednesday's trial, about 30 supporters hung up and handed out yellow ribbons of support outside the court. Another 30 onlookers, including about a dozen Western diplomats and 50 police, stood by watching, according to eyewitness accounts.

The defendant's brother-in-law, Liu Hui, who was allowed into the courtroom, told The Associated Press that prosecutors had charged Liu Xiaobo with crimes they called "serious."

"Absolutely not," says Teng of the charges against Liu. "His actions, including the organization of Charter 08 and his publishing essays and articles, all deserve constitutional protection, but the Chinese government is used to putting the outspoken away."

US Embassy political officer Gregory May, barred from the courtroom, told reporters sequestered outside that Washington called on Beijing to release Liu "immediately" and "to respect the rights of all Chinese citizens to peacefully express their political views."

Signs of support proliferate

Liu, a former university professor and an outspoken critic of the government, previously spent two years in prison for his role during the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 and three years in a "reeducation through labor" camp for challenging one-party rule in Web postings.

The decision by Chinese authorities to bring Liu to trial defied international condemnation and drew protests from leading authors, including Salman Rushdie, Umberto Eco, and Wole Soyinka.

Though Liu's supporters outside the courthouse had their yellow ribbons taken away by police, followers of the trial using the social networking site Twitter added yellow ribbons to their online profile pictures.

"There are more and more and Chinese people participating in the defense of human rights, but since there's no judicial independence, if the Chinese government wants to continue its persecution, it can,” says Teng. “There is little we can do but continue our work.”

Wang Ping contributed reporting.

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