TIANJIN, China – About two dozen plainclothes police were stationed outside a courthouse in northern China on Wednesday as the trial of a prominent human rights lawyer was expected to unfold.
Reporters, foreign diplomats and supporters were prevented from approaching the municipal court in Tianjin city where lawyer Wang Quanzhang was to be tried.
Wang is among more than 200 lawyers and legal activists who were detained in a sweeping 2015 crackdown. A member of the Fengrui law firm, among the best known in the field broadly known in China as "rights defending," he was charged with subversion of state power in 2016. He has been held without access to his lawyers or family for more than three years.
Fengrui has pursued numerous sensitive cases and represented outspoken critics of the ruling Communist Party. Wang represented members of the Falun Gong meditation sect that the government has relentlessly suppressed since banning it as an "evil cult" in 1999. Group leaders have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms and ordinary followers locked up as alleged threats.
Wang's wife Li Wenzu told The Associated Press on Tuesday that state security agents in Beijing were preventing her from going to Tianjin for her husband's trial. At the time, there were five cars stationed outside her house, said Li, who was informed of the trial just two days prior by a government lawyer. The trials of Chinese human rights figures are often scheduled during the Christmas period, when many Western diplomats and journalists are on holiday.
She and Wang Qiaoling, the wife of another rights lawyer who was detained, described in a statement posted to Twitter their encounter with state security at 5:30 a.m. Wednesday. A state security officer offered to drive them to Tianjin, but he said that the trial proceedings were not public and that they would not be allowed to attend.
Li and Wang wrote that they declined the officer's offer and tried to leave Li's apartment complex, only to find that all six gates out of the complex had police parked outside.
Li has campaigned tirelessly for her husband's release. Earlier this month, she and other wives of detained lawyers shaved their heads in an act of protest. In Chinese, the words for "hair" and "law" are near-homophones — "We can be hairless, but you can't be lawless," they chanted.
Diplomats from the U.S., Swiss, U.K. and German embassies were outside the Tianjin courthouse. They said they had requested access to attend the trial but were denied.
A man shouted his support for Wang Quanzhang before he was shoved into a car by plainclothes officers.
"A frail scholar, and you all torment him like this," Yang Chunlin yelled, referring to Wang. "Wang Quanzhang is the greatest person in China."
"I demand political reform, I demand civil rights, I demand elections within the party, respect for human rights," Yang said before he was taken away.
AP writer Yanan Wang contributed reporting from Beijing.