BEIJING Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei called an appeal hearing against a tax fine unfair after police warned him to stay away and blocked journalists from approaching the cramped court room which only had five seats.
Beijing's Chaoyang District Court agreed last month to hear the appeal brought by the company that markets Ai's work, that in itself a departure from the consistent refusal by the strictly controlled courts to give dissidents any hearing.
Tax authorities are demanding the company that markets Ai's work pay a 15 million yuan ($2.4 million) penalty for tax evasion. His supporters say the case has been trumped up, part of a drive to muzzle the outspoken social critic.
The hearing, which did not deliver a verdict, lasted about eight hours and was held behind closed doors. Dozens of police and cars blocked journalists from approaching the court, saying they did not have permission to be there.
After the hearing, Ai, 55, criticized the measures taken against him and his supporters as "perverse".
"The situation we're facing now is the judiciary is not independent," he said. "The police, the tax agency and the courts are all fundamentally entwined together."
Ai said that despite the courts' consenting to hear the appeal, police warned him not to attend and sent several patrol cars to park outside the studio where he lives.
"'You can never make it. Don't even try,'" Ai said police told him. They gave no reason, he said.
"This nation can have anything, they can have a satellite that goes to the sky and the moon, but they can never give you a clear reason why," he said. "This is ridiculous, right? There's no conversation, no discussion. Maybe they don't even know the reason. It's a really mysterious nation."
The company's lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang, also said the hearing was grossly unfair. He said the courtroom had only five seats - an unusually small number - and the court refused to produce any original documents showing evidence of tax evasion.
He also said that the court gave him very limited time to make his case and only one minute to make his closing argument.
"I'm furious," Pu told reporters later at Ai's home. "This day will go down as an ugly one in legal history."
Pu said the court is likely to announce a verdict in about a month.
The bearded artist has been a persistent irritant to authorities and has parried efforts to silence him, communicating with his supporters on Twitter and calling for a public forum to discuss his tax case.
"From a certain perspective we already won the lawsuit early on as we have won over public opinion," Ai said.
"But within this system, we can never win. Because when a system rejects interaction, rejects adjustment and refuses to own up to its own mistakes, you can never prevail over it."
Ai said that even if he eventually loses his case, Chinese citizens can at least use it as an example to debate and hold government bodies to account.
Ai was detained without charge in April 2011 and held mainly in solitary confinement until his conditional release last year. He stayed away from the hearing, but he said his wife Lu Qing, who is also the firm's legal representative, had attended.
Ai's legal consultant, Liu Xiaoyuan, was instructed by state security officers to depart Beijing immediately on a flight to his home in the southern province of Jiangxi and not to meet Ai, the artist said. Earlier, Liu was unreachable after he was told to meet state security officers on Tuesday, according to Ai and Liu Yanping, a worker in Ai's studio.
Liu Xiaoyuan did not answer calls to his mobile phone.
Security officers have instructed prominent dissidents to remain in their homes and stay away from the hearing.
But government efforts to muzzle Ai have frequently backfired, as demonstrated by an outpouring of public sympathy - and cash - in response to the tax penalty. About 30,000 people donated money to help Ai cover an 8.45 million yuan ($1.3 million) bond required to contest the tax charges.
China's official media has not reported the lawsuit. But the Global Times, a popular tabloid owned by the People's Daily, said in a commentary on Monday that the recognition given to Ai by the West "is not acknowledged among the majority of Chinese".
(Editing by Nick Macfie)