BEIJING — A blind Chinese activist who attracted international attention by defending villagers forced to undergo late-term abortions went on trial Friday, but only after Chinese authorities arrested his main lawyer.
Chen Guangcheng, a self-taught lawyer, has been charged with illegal assembly and intent to damage public property. The charges came about a year after he publicized forced abortions and other abuses by family planning officials in Shandong, a coastal province southeast of Beijing, China's capital. If convicted, Chen, 35, could face a maximum of five years in prison.
In a two-hour trial in the city of Linyi, Chen was represented by two court-appointed attorneys who were unfamiliar with his case and appeared to have little intention of defending him, said one of Chen's three brothers, the only family members allowed into the courtroom.
"These two lawyers kept repeating one phrase: 'We don't disagree,' " said Chen Guangfu, the defendant's eldest brother. "That means they agreed with everything the prosecutor said. How can there be any justice in a situation like this?"
Chen's main lawyer, Xu Zhiyong, a legal scholar from Beijing, was detained Thursday after he was accused of theft. He was released Friday after the trial ended and was not charged with any crime.
Last year, Chen publicized evidence that tens of thousands of women and men had been subjected to forced abortions and sterilizations in the Linyi municipality, an area that is home to about 10 million people.
Although forced abortions have been reported in other regions, activists say the abuses in Linyi were unusual because local authorities took villagers hostage. When women fled to avoid forced abortion, officials seized their relatives in an effort to coerce the women into returning, lawyers and residents say.
China's family planning officials contend that most of the country's population programs are not coercive and have enabled millions of people to escape poverty. But the central government continues to put pressure on local authorities to meet targets, often spurring abuses.
Chen's work attracted widespread attention. An investigation by China's National Population and Family Planning Commission confirmed many of his findings. As a result of the report, some Linyi officials were fired. Chen became a local hero and an object of official scorn.
In August 2005, Shandong officials placed Chen under house arrest, where he was reportedly beaten and prevented from receiving medical attention. Since then, he and his family have been threatened, put under house arrest and guarded 24 hours a day by at least 20 people, sometimes three times as many, his eldest brother said. Even a trip to the market required the escort of at least five men.
A team of defense lawyers from Beijing has been working on Chen's behalf despite threats.
The latest example of the dangers Chen's supporters face came just before Friday's trial when Xu was detained by local police and accused of theft.
In a telephone interview shortly after his release, Xu said he had gone to dinner with two other lawyers Thursday. As they were walking, they ran into a group of men who started beating him and accusing him of stealing a wallet. Xu called the police. Both he and his colleagues were taken to the station. The other two were released after two hours, and Xu was detained until Friday afternoon.
"It was clearly a setup," Xu said. "They are totally shameless."
The detention prevented Xu from defending Chen in court; his colleagues also were not allowed to meet with their client. In protest, the lawyers attempted to boycott the trial and demand a recess, both to no avail.
"This trial has no validity," said Teng Biao, another of Chen's lawyers.
Gao Zhisheng, a human rights lawyer who had campaigned for Chen's release and worked on other politically sensitive cases, was detained Friday by police. He was held on suspicion of criminal activity, according to the official New China News Agency.
Court officials in Linyi did not say when a verdict in Chen's case would be issued, but his supporters say they have no doubt what will happen.
"The outcome of this case is a foregone conclusion," said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher with Human Rights Watch based in Hong Kong. "The trial is just for show. The bigger question is whether you can have justice in China. This is definitely a big setback for what lawyers can do in China."
Although Beijing authorities are concerned about their public image and say they are committed to creating a fair legal system, they are also worried about losing control.
Critics of the government say officials appear to have stepped up efforts to prevent lawyers and others from helping protesters and activists.
"They are clearly sending a message to lawyers: "Don't take these cases," Bequelin said.
Chen's trial, initially scheduled for last month, had been postponed at the last minute after hundreds of supporters showed up. Many were beaten and arrested by police.
On Friday, local roads were blocked by more than 100 police officers, preventing villagers, relatives and defense lawyers from approaching the courthouse.
The several dozen people who did witness the proceedings were mostly police officials, attorneys said.
"When the trial began, my brother tried many times to protest," said Chen's eldest brother. "The judge just said it was pointless."