Authorities in the northern Chinese province of Hebei on Friday dispatched large numbers of police and officials to a court in Gaobeidian city, as agriculture billionaire Sun Dawu entered the second day of his trial.
Officials also scrambled to install additional surveillance equipment around the Gaobeidian Municipal People's Court ahead of the trial, according to photos provided by someone at the scene.
Veteran lawyer Yang Bin said officials from the ministry of justice and the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP)'s central propaganda department had also been outside the court buildings, preventing any journalists from entering the court to witness the trial.
Hotels around the court were fully booked, mostly occupied by officials, sources at the scene told RFA>
"The trial this morning continued to focus on certain procedural matters, particularly the exclusion of illegal evidence, and the two teams of lawyers were tied up with that for the most part," Yang said.
"[Sun's] two sons stood trial beside him, while his wife and daughter-in-law are being dealt with in separate cases," he said.
An observer outside the court building who gave only a surname, Zhang, said he had been denied permission to sit in the public gallery.
He said the street outside the court building was full of plainclothes state security police, and communications in the immediate vicinity had been jammed.
"There were officers everywhere and very strong signal jamming," Zhang said. "Only one person per defendant was allowed in to attend the trial."
"People also came from the legal affairs bureau of the ministry of justice, and from the judicial offices where the lawyers are based, so yes, judicial officials from three levels of government," he said.
'Targeted for political reasons'
Sun Dawu, a former pig farmer, stands accused of a slew of offenses, including "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," "gathering a crowd to attack an organ of the state," "disrupting official duties," "illegal mining," and "illegal occupation of agricultural land," the Associated Press reported.
Sun, 67, was detained in April 2021 alongside dozens of Dawu Agricultural and Animal Husbandry Group employees, some of whom are members of his family, after Dawu employees in August 2020 tried to stop a state-owned enterprise from demolishing a company building.
The Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network said he is being targeted for political reasons, due to his association with detained democracy activist Xu Zhiyong.
The group said Sun, 67, had used the profits from his billion-dollar agricultural enterprise to "support his ideals of a more just society."
"This included supporting human rights lawyers and dissidents even after they became the target of a nationwide crackdown beginning in 2015," CHRD said, adding that he had paid some of the costs of legal defenses for the lawyers.
The prosecution has said it is seeking a jail term of 25 years. The trial began on Thursday behind closed doors and amid tight security, despite calls from Sun's 50-strong defense team for the case to be livestreamed.
The defense team have also called on the CCP central committee to send a taskforce to investigate the claims being made by local officials about Sun and his business.
Sun and his family were held incommunicado under "residential surveillance at a designated location (RSDL)," a form of treatment associated with a higher risk of torture, and often meted out to detainees in political cases, CHRD said.
Unconfirmed reports have emerged that Sun has alleged torture or mistreatment while under RSDL, as police tried to force a "confession" from him.
But the court said it wouldn't allow evidence supporting these allegations to be submitted at trial.
Repeated calls to the Gaobeidian Municipal People's Court, the Hebei provincial police department and the Hebei Provincial High People's Court rang unanswered during office hours on Friday.
Veteran defense attorney Ran Tong said government censors have also been deleting online information about Sun's trial, suggesting that the case is regarded as highly sensitive by the CCP leadership.
"There will definitely be a huge amount of evidence in this case, and it will carry on for many days," Ran told RFA.
"Security is tight, the news is being censored, and the legal team are under tight restrictions, with judicial bureau officials sitting right next to them," he said. "To speak frankly, this is justice in name only."
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.