TIANJIN (AFP) - Two activists were taken away on Wednesday (Dec 26) after protesting outside the tightly guarded courthouse in northern China where the trial of a prominent human rights lawyer is set to take place, witnesses said.
Wang Quanzhang, 42, who defended political activists and victims of land seizures, disappeared in a 2015 sweep - known as the "709" crackdown - aimed at courtroom critics of Communist authorities.
Charged in January 2016 with alleged "subversion of state power", Wang had been in legal limbo - detained without a trial date - until Monday, when his government-appointed lawyer finally contacted his wife with the court date.
Just before 10 am, Agence France-Presse journalists witnessed a man getting arrested after he protested outside the court in Tianjin, where Wang's trial is believed to be underway.
"A refined scholar has been detained by you lot this way that even members of the public can't see him," shouted Yang Chunlin, a rights activist from Heilongjiang.
"This is fascist rule, it's absurd. The Chinese people need to stop living in fear, we need to stand up to oppression and be brave." Shortly after, several plainclothes officers set on Yang and bundled him into a waiting black SUV.
Another man holding up a sign that said "release (the) innocent Wang Quanzhang" was taken away by local authorities about 8:15 am, a witness told AFP.
Amnesty International researcher Patrick Poon identified the man as Zhang Zhecheng, a rights activist from Jiangxi in central China.
Wang is charged with being influenced by "infiltrating anti-China forces", of being trained by a foreign group and accepting their funding, and of having subversive thoughts as a result.
The documents seen by AFP say he worked with Peter Dahlin, a Swedish human rights activist whose group offered training to lawyers who have tried to use the tightly controlled Chinese judiciary to redress apparent government abuses.
Dahlin was deported in 2016 after a 23-day detention. Wang is also accused of hyping up and distorting facts in cases he worked on, including a "cult" he was defending.
The Tianjin court was under virtual lockdown, cordoned off by white metal barricades while media, diplomats and other observers were kept even further away from the building, separated by a busy four-lane road.
An AFP journalist at the scene counted at least 50 security personnel, both uniformed and plainclothes, who told journalists that the trial was not open to the public. Wang's wife and a supporter were also stopped from attending the trial.
In an account posted on Twitter early Wednesday morning, Wang Qiaoling detailed how she and Wang Quanzhang's wife, Li Wenzu, were barred from leaving a Beijing housing compound by groups of police officers for over an hour. Li was placed under de facto house arrest on Tuesday with "more than 20" security personnel outside her apartment.
In Hong Kong, about 50 people marched to China's liaison office on Wednesday, demanding the release of Wang and others detained during the 709 crackdown.
Doriane Lau, China researcher at Amnesty International, earlier this week raised questions about the timing of the trial.
"We think this is deliberate because obviously a big part of the world will be having a holiday and will not be able to respond."
On Christmas Day 2009, Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel laureate who died of terminal liver cancer last year while under police custody, was sentenced to 11 years in prison for subversion.
And last year, Chinese activist Wu Gan, who refused to plead guilty to charges of "subverting state power", was sentenced to eight years in prison the day after Christmas.