A high-profile Chinese dissident accused of subversion was tried at a two-hour hearing Wednesday that shut out foreign diplomats concerned over a case that reflects the communist government's deep suspicion of calls for political reform.
Liu Xiaobo was detained a year ago, just before the release of an unusually direct appeal for more civil rights in China he co-authored called Charter 08, signed by scores of China's top intellectuals. He faces up to 15 years in jail. The verdict is due Friday.
China's Communist Party-controlled prosecutors and courts rarely reject cases against dissidents, and the chances of Liu avoiding jail are slim.
International human rights groups and Western nations have heavily criticized Liu's detention. A dozen diplomats, including from the United States, Britain, Germany, Australia and Canada, stood outside the Beijing courthouse in freezing weather, barred from entering, along with a handful of Liu's Chinese supporters.
"We call on the government of China to release him immediately," said Gregory May, first secretary with the U.S. Embassy. The European Union made a similar appeal.
Liu, 53, a literary critic and former professor, spent 20 months in jail for joining the 1989 student-led protests in Tiananmen Square that were crushed in a military crackdown. In his writings, most published only on the Internet, he has strongly called for civil rights and political reform.
'This trial is already decided'
Charter 08 demands a new constitution guaranteeing human rights, the open election of public officials, and freedom of religion and expression. Some 10,000 people have signed it in the past year, though a news blackout and Internet censorship have left most Chinese unaware that it exists.
Liu has been the only person arrested over the charter, but rights groups said several signers have been harassed or fired from their jobs, and warned not to attend the trial or write about it online.
However a few of them risked turning up at the courthouse Wednesday, where dozens of uniformed and plainclothes police were deployed. They passed out yellow ribbons but doubted Liu would go free.
"It's not like we stand out here today and tomorrow China gets democracy," said one signer, 36-year-old Cao Jinbai. "This trial is already decided."
Liu is charged with inciting to subvert state power, a vaguely worded charge that is routinely used to jail dissidents and carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison.
Liu's wife said she was not allowed to leave her home to attend the trial. Liu's brother-in-law, Liu Hui, was allowed inside and said Liu appeared to be healthy and in good spirits.
Liu admitted "to practicing his freedom of speech, but did not admit to trying to overturn the state's power," the brother-in-law said.
The prosecution did not say what penalty they wanted if Liu is found guilty.
"As always, Liu Xiaobo believed that he is innocent," his lawyer, Shang Baojun, said by telephone after the trial.
Calls for release rebuffed
People answering phones at the No. 1 Intermediate People's Court in Beijing would not comment on the trial or why the diplomats and many others were barred from entering.
Coming despite months of international pressure on China to release Liu, the trial underscores the government's determination to squelch dissent and other perceived threats to political stability in the one-party state.
Last month, veteran dissident Huang Qi, who had criticized the government's response to a 2008 earthquake, was sentenced to three years in prison. Weeks before that, the founder of a Tibetan literary Web site was sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges of disclosing state secrets, according to an overseas monitoring group. The charges appeared related to the passing of information about anti-government protests in Tibet last year.
The barring of diplomats from Wednesday's court proceedings also emphasizes the limited leverage Western governments, including the U.S., have with China in such cases.
Washington sharply criticized the trial as "uncharacteristic of a great country."
"As far as we can tell, this man's crime was simply signing a piece of paper that aspires to a more open and participatory form of government. That is not a crime," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. "These kind of actions — clearly a political trial that will likely lead to a political conviction — are uncharacteristic of a great country."
New York-based Human Rights Watch was deeply skeptical that Liu would get justice.
"The only purpose of this trial is to dress up naked political repression in the trappings of legal proceedings," Sophie Richardson, the group's advocacy director for Asia, said in a statement.
'Liu's our hero'
Liu's supporters who turned up at the courthouse said they had read about his case on Twitter after finding a way around China's blocking of the microblogging site. The hearing also attracted other Chinese with grievances against the government who sneaked through the ring of police to make their cases to foreign media.
They were dispersed and in some cases detained after the trial was over.
Tong Guojing, 47, a Charter 08 signer, said police detained him on his way to the subway after the trial and asked why he was in Beijing. He was made to wait at a processing center to be picked up by authorities from his hometown Shanghai.
"They asked about the yellow ribbons," he said by telephone from the processing center. "This is ridiculous."
He recounted how Shanghai police had visited him twice before to warn him against signing the charter, but he did anyway. He said it was not intended to sabotage the communist regime.
"Liu's our hero," he said. "It wasn't meant to overthrow the government. It was advice."