A long-time petitioner and rights activist stood trial on Tuesday at a court in the central Chinese province of Hunan on public order and extortion charges amid tight security, his lawyer and son said.
Xing Wangli stood trial at Henan's Xi County People Court for "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," and "extortion," defense attorney Chang Boyang told RFA.
Xing appeared in court wearing manacles at 9.00 a.m., as more than 100 police were stationed outside the court buildings to prevent his supporters from approaching.
Xing's son Xing Jian is a political refugee currently applying for resettlement in a third country from Thailand.
He said that authorities feared the trial could prove a focal point for a gathering of Xing's supporters.
"The local government was worried that citizens might converge on the county court, so there was a special request for police support from the Henan police department," Xing Jian said.
"They also assigned police officers to put pressure on Xing's defense lawyer Chang Boyang, while they sent more than 100 plainclothes police ... to lock down the area," he said.
"Nobody was able to get through to attend the trial, although some relatives attended," Xing Jian said.
Accused of extortion
According to his indictment, Xing was accused of making another "illegal petitioning" trip to Beijing in January, as well as demanding money from local "interceptors," law enforcers specifically hired to force petitioners to return to their hometowns and stop complaining to a higher level of government.
Defense attorney Chang said Xing had been offered the 3,000 yuan he was accused of "extorting" from the interceptors, after he complained of having no money to celebrate Chinese New Year with his family.
"This was given to him to help him out of hardship by the interceptors," Chang said. "The prosecution said that he was picking quarrels and stirring up trouble, including snatching other people's property away from them."
"We argued that the 3,000 yuan was given to him because he was in genuine hardship, and that the whole reason he went to Beijing was to complain about the head injuries he received when he was held [previously] in a detention center," Chang said. "He hadn't received any compensation for those injuries."
Chang said his client was beaten to the point of unconsciousness in August 2016, suffering blunt force trauma and a fractured skull while serving a four-and-a-half year jail term, also for "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," after supporting another petitioner's case.
Officials had said at the time that he had tried to hang himself, but injured his head falling during the attempt.
In addition to his own case, Xing has also supported other residents of Xi county with their complaints and petitions against the authorities, including calling on the Ministry of Public Security and the ruling Chinese Communist Party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) to investigate the death in custody of Xi county petitioner Feng Guohui.
Faced with thousands of complaints about its officials every day, China has banned its citizens from taking petitions directly to the central government without first going through local authorities, who are often the parties being complained about.
From 2014, departments at higher levels of the central government began refusing to accept petitions that bypassed the local government and its immediate superiors, and have rejected petitions deemed to be the preserve of the judiciary or legislative bodies.
Beijing has repeatedly tried to stem the flood of thousands of petitioners who descend on the capital with complaints, often ahead of key political events, when petitioners hope their cases will get a more sympathetic hearing.
Petitioners say corrupt networks of power and influence at local levels ensure that a fair hearing is all but impossible, and that they are repeatedly stonewalled, detained in "black jails," beaten, and harassed by local authorities if they try to take complaints to the top.
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