A leading Chinese human rights activist is standing trial for public disturbance, more than 15 months after he was detained by police.

Zhang Lei, defense lawyer for Yang Maodong, said on his microblog that Yang's trial at Tianhe District Court in the southern city of Guangzhou got off to a tense start Friday when the court several times cut off arguments by the defense.

A court employee declined to confirm the trial against Yang, but said a "special case" was taking place.

Yang, better known by his penname Guo Feixiong, is a veteran activist who advocates greater political freedom and more civic engagement in China.

He was detained in August 2013 after he organized public rallies calling for press freedom outside a media company that complained of government censorship.