BEIJING (AP) — Prominent rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang went on trial Monday on charges of provoking trouble with commentaries on social media that were critical of the ruling Communist Party.
Police pushed journalists away from the entrance of the 2nd Beijing Intermediate People’s Court as Pu stood trial in a case that international rights groups have criticized as political persecution. Pu has been active in defending free speech, and represented dissident artist Ai Weiwei in a tax evasion case that Ai’s supporters said was politically motivated.
Since coming to power in 2013, President Xi Jinping has spearheaded crackdowns on civil activists, rights lawyers and online freedom of expression, in moves aimed at snuffing out any potential threats to the Communist Party’s grip on power.
The lawyer was detained shortly after attending a May 2014 meeting to discuss commemorating 25 years since the Tiananmen Square massacre, at a time when authorities were keeping a lid on any public commemorations of the event. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of protesters were killed, and the topic remains taboo in China.
The charges against Pu relate to a number of posts on China’s Twitter-like Sina Weibo that questioned the ruling Communist Party’s policies toward the Tibetan and Uighur (pronounced WEE-gur) ethnic minorities in the Tibet and Xinjiang regions, and mocked political figures.
Rights groups have said he faces up to eight years in prison.
Patrick Poon, China researcher at Amnesty International, called Pu’s trial “an act of political persecution.”
“He is being punished solely for standing up to the Chinese government in his courageous defense of human rights,” he said.
Amnesty International says there have been “repeated procedural irregularities” in his prosecution, including a prolonged pre-trial detention, denial of adequate medical care and prosecutors refusing to disclose evidence against him to his defense lawyers.
Pu also was instrumental in pushing for the eventual abolishment of the labor camp system, which allowed police to lock up people for up to four years without a trial.
Video journalist Aritz Parra and writer Louise Watt in Beijing contributed to this report.