BEIJING (Reuters) - The teenage son of a prominent Chinese general denied the charge of gang rape on Wednesday, inflaming public anger in a case that has stirred resentment against the offspring of the political elite who are widely seen as spoilt.
Li Tianyi, 17, is one of five accused of assaulting a woman in a Beijing hotel in February, according to state media.
Li has become the most prominent target of complaints that the sons and daughters of China’s top-ranked Communist Party officials can dodge the law because of family influence.
Li’s father is General Li Shuangjiang of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), who is a singer known for performing patriotic songs on television shows and at official events.
Li’s mother, Meng Ge, is a famous singer in the PLA.
At a closed-door trial, Li said he was drunk and had no knowledge of the alleged assault, two Beijing-based state-run newspapers said on their microblogs.
Dozens of journalists as well as supporters of Li and the victim gathered outside the court in northwestern Beijing. Police officers dragged away one of Li’s supporters after she was seen talking to a reporter.
Two women stood in protest outside the court, holding signs that said: “Protecting the rights of mothers, females and young girls” and “Believe in justice”.
Li’s denial generated a torrent of criticism online.
“The Li family continues to challenge the intelligence of normal people. They’re using despicable, rogue means to acquit Li,” said a microblogger. “If a heavy sentence is not imposed, it will not satisfy the people’s resentment.”
The case has dominated headlines for weeks, focusing attention again on China’s political aristocrats who are widely viewed as corrupt and above the law.
It follows the dramatic trial of ousted former senior politician Bo Xilai, whose family’s lurid excesses were detailed by the court and lapped up on social media.
Li’s legal adviser, Lan He, told reporters that lawyers hoped for a fair trial.
“Celebrities are also citizens and should not be held to ransom because of emotions,” he said in a question-and-answer session with bloggers on Tuesday. “A moral judgment cannot replace justice.”
It is not Li’s first brush with the law. In 2011, he drove a BMW into another car in Beijing, beat up the couple inside the vehicle and then scoffed at bystanders about calling the police.
He was sentenced to a year in a juvenile correctional facility and his father made a public apology.
“The general public is worried that his family, because of their relationships and power, will be able to use their connections,” said Zhang Ming, a politics professor at Renmin University.
“In China, this kind of privilege is very powerful. It’s omnipresent,” Zhang said. “The people’s fears are not groundless.”
On Wednesday, “Li Tianyi” was the second-most searched topic on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, with his name generating 9.7 million search results.
In July, hackers attacked the website of one of the law firms representing Li, saying: “We just want to return justice to the client.”
President Xi Jinping has made addressing discontent over abuses by officials a main goal. Rising mistrust of the government presents a potent risk for leaders who fear social instability.
Even the People’s Daily, the party’s mouthpiece, weighed in on Li’s case when it broke, saying the failure of prominent families to educate their children could “lead to antagonism among the people”.
Additional reporting by Joseph Campbell and Beijing Newsroom; Editing by Nick Macfie