Once again, a human rights lawyer is being tried in China. The charge against 50-year-old Pu Zhiqiang is that he disturbed peace and incited hatred. He can face up to eight years in prison if convicted.
Pu Zhiqiang, who is awaiting trial, has already been behind bars for 587 days. It is a case amongst peers, as all parties involved are deeply familiar with every detail of the Chinese legal system, as well as its recesses.
In the only three page criminal complaint against him, the state prosecutor has accused the human rights lawyer of "inciting hatred among ethnic groups" within the country and being a "public troublemaker."
On Monday, December 14, the case will be heard by Beijing's Second Intermediate People's Court.
Last year in March, nine people clad in black indiscriminately attacked pedestrians with machetes at a railway station. Twenty-nine people were killed and several hundred were wounded in the attacks. The perpetrators belonged to the ethnic Uyghur group, a Turkic-speaking minority based in western China. Chinese authorities describe them as "terrorists" and "separatists."
After the assault, Pu allegedly published eight short messages on the Internet, which, the prosecutor says, incited hatred and tensions between the ethnic communities. The officials also claim that many Internet users said that Pu's messages were damaging for the solidarity between China's ethnic groups.
Seven posts as proof?
The three page indictment report does not explicitly state which of Pu's messages are being investigated. Seven Weibo messages - which Pu allegedly posted between 2011 and 2014 - have been circulating online and may now prove to be his downfall.
Following the attacks in Kunming, Pu allegedly wrote: "The act of terrorism is the result, not the cause." Pu also supposedly wrote on the subject of Tibet: "In the Tibetan areas, all temples should demonstrate nine things, namely, portraits of the four major Chinese leaders (Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao), the national flag, a map, tap water, radio and TV, cinema, a library, and newspapers. And in the city of Yinging (in the predominantly Muslim Xinjian autonomous region), beards and face veils are forbidden. These measures should weaken religious consciousness. Are the Han Chinese crazy? Or is it, rather, their leadership?"
Pu was always a problem for the government in Beijing. As a student, he called for more democracy at Tiananmen Square in 1989. He went on a hunger strike and participated in a sit-in, but he was not arrested.
After graduating with a degree in law from Beijing, he passed the state examination and was licensed as a lawyer and university lecturer. Among his clients were critical journalists, farmers whose land was expropriated, and victims of torture. In 2011, he represented the renowned artist Ai Weiwei who had come to the attention of the authorities for alleged tax evasion.
In 2013, Pu accused Zhou Yongkang, a retired permanent member of the Politburo, of abuse of office on his social network account. Something no one previously dared to do. Two years later, Zhou was sentenced to life in prison for corruption and abuse of office.
Germany's Human Rights Commissioner Straesser praised Pu for his 'commitment to enhancing the rule of law'
Christoph Straesser, Germany's Human Rights Commissioner, criticized the lawsuit currently opened against Pu. According to Straesser, Pu stood up for the rule of law "within the context of his legal profession and on the basis of the applicable laws."
The US State Department also called Pu "a courageous defense attorney recognized around the world for his tireless work in support of the rule of law in China."
Many of Pu's fellow lawyers in China are carefully following his public trial. But Courtroom Number 6, where Pu will stand trial on Monday, is one of the smallest out of the 35 courtrooms available.