China rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang goes on trial in Beijing

The prominent advocate is charged with racial incitement and provoking trouble over social media postings that criticized the ruling party and its policies towards ethnic minorities in China. 

Andy Wong/AP
Police officers push away foreign journalists covering rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang's trial at the Beijing Second Intermediate People's Court in Beijing, Monday, Dec. 14, 2015. Pu went on trial Monday on charges of provoking trouble with commentaries on social media that were critical of the ruling Communist Party.

China’s most influential human rights lawyer went on trial himself here Monday, as police scuffled outside the courthouse with diplomats and journalists who were not allowed in.

Pu Zhiqiang faces charges of “inciting racial hatred” and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” which could earn him eight years imprisonment.

Mr. Pu’s supporters say the accusations, based on seven sharp-tongued posts on Chinese social media criticizing the government, are simply an excuse to shut him up. Should he be found guilty, as observers expect, he will automatically be disbarred as a lawyer, colleagues say. He has already been in jail for 19 months. 

Pu’s trial is widely seen as a new high-water mark in President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on any signs of action or thought critical of the government. Several hundred lawyers have been detained, harassed, or disappeared over the past six months; more than two dozen remain under arrest or unaccounted for, human rights groups say.

The US embassy expressed concern at what it called the “vague charges” against China’s best known rights lawyer and urged the authorities to release him. A senior US diplomat who read the statement outside the courthouse on Monday morning was jostled and shouted down by plainclothes policemen.

Though several dozen of Pu’s supporters chanted slogans protesting his innocence outside the court, they were forbidden to attend the trial. At least two of them were detained by the police. Pu’s wife, Meng Qun, the only relative permitted entry, told a friend that her husband was “thinner and grayer but still quick witted,” the friend tweeted. The court did not issue a verdict, Ms. Meng reported.

Pu is a particularly prominent lawyer, having played a leading role in the successful campaign to abolish “re-education through labor,” a system whereby police could lock someone up for as long as four years with no trial. He also stood up to powerful figures in the ruling Communist party, publicly accusing former security chief Zhou Yongkang of abusing his authority long before the much-feared party boss was arrested for corruption.

“Pu is a very special person,” his lawyer, Shang Baojun said before the trial. “He is one of the best human rights lawyers in China,” he added, who magnified his influence through pungently expressed social media posts that won him tens of thousands of followers. His accounts have since been shut down. 

'Freedom of speech' or incitement? 

Pu took up the law after joining the pro-democracy demonstrations on Tiananmen Square in 1989, which were violently broken up by the army. He was arrested last year soon after attending a private meeting with other former participants to commemorate that event.

After 18 months of investigation, however, the prosecutor cited just seven comments by Pu on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, as evidence supporting the charges. Three of the posts insulted government officials and supporters, including Mao Zedong’s grandson; the other four criticized policies towards minorities such as Tibetans and Uighur Muslims.

Such criticism of the government is not uncommon on Weibo, and Pu did not deny writing and posting the comments, says Mr. Shang. “The question is how to interpret them – as incitements to hatred or exercising freedom of speech?” he adds. “Pu’s case is a very typical one, of somebody getting into trouble because of what he said.”

The court’s verdict, expected in the next few weeks, will be seen as a bellwether for human rights activism in China. Pu is almost certain to be found guilty – more than 99.9 percent of defendants in criminal cases were found guilty by Chinese courts in 2013, according to official figures. The judge could be lenient and hand him a suspended sentence, or put him in jail for as long as eight years, according to his lawyers.

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