China begins trial of rights lawyer for 'subversion of state power'

BEIJING (Reuters) - Prominent human rights lawyer Xie Yang has admitted to charges of “subverting state power”, a Chinese court said on Monday, releasing a video of him reading a statement in which he advises other rights lawyers to shun contact with foreign and independent media.

Xie, 45, was reported missing by rights groups in mid-2015 and was then held without any charges being made public until January 2016, when authorities formally announced his arrest on suspicion of “inciting subversion.

His wife Chen Guiqui, who is in the United States issued a statement in January saying her husband had been tortured while in custody. Her account was widely reported by international media.

President Xi Jinping has cracked down on civil society during his four years in power, charging or detaining dozens of rights lawyers and activists who authorities say are a threat to national security and social stability.

The Changsha Intermediate People’s Court in central China’s Hunan province released transcripts and video footage of the first hearing of Xie’s case on Weibo, China’s equivalent to Twitter, on Monday.

According to the transcripts, Xie, 45, confessed to charges of subversion and disrupting court order and expressed repent. The court also released a short video that showed Xie saying he had not been mistreated while in custody.

Xie, who had worked on several cases deemed politically sensitive by China’s ruling Communist Party, also said he had undergone “training” on three occasions in Hong Kong and South Korea, where he was “brainwashed” into trying to promote western constitutionalism in China.

“My actions go against my role as a lawyer,” Xie said in the video, reading from a page. “I want to take this opportunity to express to other rights lawyers my view now that we should give up using contact with foreign media and independent media to hype sensitive news events, attack judicial institutions, and smear the image of nation’s party organs while handling cases.”

Among the evidence prosecutors produced against Xie were his actions in drawing attention to a civilian shot dead by police at a railway station in northeastern Heilongjiang province in May 2015. Other evidence included extensive logs of Xie’s Weibo posts, as well as his conversations on messaging app Telegram.

Reuters could not verify independently the accuracy of the transcripts, photos or footage released on Weibo. The court declined to comment when called and it was not possible to reach Xie.

“The Chinese authorities want to use his trial to discredit his lawyers and the western media,” Patrick Poon, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Amnesty said.

Xie may have been pressured into taking back his account of torture, he added.

Xie’s wife, Chen, released a statement late on Sunday that said a number of his supporters had been prevented from attending the trial.

“It looks like all parties have already prepared for this open hearing,” she said. “Xie Yang is innocent, if there is an open hearing then this is to show disdain for the law.”

The United Nations spoke out on Friday against the detention of Xie’s lawyer, Chen Jiangang.

In March, China’s state broadcaster and a number of other government-backed media outlets simultaneously released reports declaring the accounts of torture a fabrication and referring to those reports in the international media as “fake news”.

On Monday, the court said it would hand down a sentence at an unspecified later date.

Reporting by Christian Shepherd and Philip Wen; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore