HONG KONG (Reuters) - A closely-watched trial of three Chinese rights activists resumed on Thursday in the southern city of Guangzhou as authorities pursued an unprecedented crackdown on human rights lawyers across China.
The area around Guangzhou's intermediate People's Court was blocked off with metal barricades and scores of police were deployed. Foreign journalists and a small group of Western diplomats were barred from the courtroom.
At least a dozen supporters of the defendants -- Tang Jingling, Wang Qingying and Yuan Chaoyang, who goes by the pen name Yuan Xinting -- were taken away by police according to witnesses and diplomats on the scene.
Police held up rows of black umbrellas to obscure views of these activists being removed.
Some 249 people including rights lawyers have been detained or questioned since the crackdown began in July, according to the Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Concern Group.
Tang, 44, a prominent human rights lawyer, was arrested a ago and now faces a charge of "inciting subversion of state power", which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years.
The men distributed books such as Gene Sharp's "From Dictatorship to Democracy" and "Self-Liberation", police said. They also accused Tang of inciting others to participate in the non-violent "Citizen Non-Cooperation Movement".
Yan Xin, a defense lawyer for the activists, said they had pleaded not guilty. "He (Tang) didn't answer much in court," said Yan. "He felt the prosecution didn't have the right to ask questions and accuse him of any subversive tendencies given his peaceful work."
The trio were known as the "three gentlemen of Guangzhou", part of a once vibrant community of activists in the southern Chinese city that has been targeted by authorities in recent years. Another Guangzhou rights leader, Guo Feixiong, has been detained for over a year and faces prosecution for his work.
The U.S. government said in a statement that it was "deeply concerned" at what appeared to be a systematic pattern of arrests and detentions of rights defenders who "peacefully challenge official Chinese policies and actions".
In Hong Kong, several dozen activists including lawyers and several legislators held a street protest calling for an end to the clampdown on civil society in China. They held up yellow umbrellas and photographs of Tang and other rights defenders.
Last month, legal proceedings were suspended when the three dismissed their lawyers after the court rejected requests to call witnesses and keep Communist Party members off the bench.
One of the lawyers for the activists, Sui Muqing, has since been detained in the ongoing crackdown. The trial will continue through Friday.
Reporting by James Pomfret; Editing by Mark Heinrich