China begins first trial for activist tied to 2015 crackdown

TIANJIN, China (AP) — A court in the northern Chinese city of Tianjin has begun to try the first of four human rights advocates charged with subversion of state power, marking the first publicly acknowledged hearing in a yearlong case shrouded in secrecy and involving hundreds of Chinese human rights activists.

In a microblog post Tuesday, the official Xinhua News Agency said that a trial had begun for the activist Zhai Yanmin, who was arrested last July as part of a countrywide government campaign that paralyzed China’s activist legal circles. Roughly 300 lawyers and activists were initially seized and questioned before the majority was released.

Prosecutors announced last month they would try a lawyer, Zhou Shifeng of the Beijing law firm Fengrui — which worked extensively on human rights cases — and three activists, including Zhai. More than a dozen others remain jailed, their legal status uncertain.

Police cordoned off the Tianjin No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court on Tuesday, one day after protesters flanked by foreign diplomats demanded more information about the cases.

Xinhua said the trial would be open and attended by five foreign media outlets and other observers, in an apparent attempt to address vocal criticism from the activists’ supporters about a near-total lack of transparency surrounding the cases.

Many wives have said they and their retained lawyers have been denied access to the jailed activists for more than a year, receiving only occasional updates by word of mouth, while some family members seeking information have been briefly detained themselves.

Zhai’s wife, Liu Ermin, was taken into custody on Sunday night and has not been heard from since, friends said.

Having cordoned off the area around the court house on Tuesday, authorities in Tianjin directed reporters to a local hotel where a transcription of the court proceedings was being shown in a screening room.

The reception, which included refreshments and a work space, appeared designed to keep reporters away from the courthouse and under the close watch of authorities. Such practices are in keeping with China’s heavy-handed management of all media — foreign and domestic — and followed confrontations outside the courthouse on Monday.