BEIJING Three Chinese Internet activists went on trial on Wednesday for publicising the disputed death of a young woman days before U.S. President Barack Obama heads to China with human rights on his agenda.
The three faced the charge of "making false allegations" in a court in Fujian province in eastern China after they helped draw up, and posted online, documents and a video about the fate of 25-year-old Yan Xiaoling, who had been involved with a local underworld figure when she died in early 2007.
Yan's mother, Lin Xiuying, campaigned for two years against an official verdict that she died from haemorrhaging caused by an ectopic pregnancy. Doctors told her Yan was gang-raped the night she died, Lin is widely quoted as saying.
Posted online, material on the case sparked a furore, prompting local officials to deny the charges publicly. When the controversy would not die down, police arrested a handful of people who had prepared and posted the documents.
Three who had drafted Lin's complaint and recorded an interview with her -- Fan Yanqiong, Wu Huaying and You Jingyou -- were eventually charged, highlighting the ruling Communist Party's concerns about the impact of internet activism.
The dead woman's mother, who is the source of all the information which prosecutors say is untrue, does not face trial.
"Drafting a document or making a video does not make them guilty of this crime. They just listed to Yan Xiaoling's mother and prepared materials, they didn't tell her what to say," said Liu Xiaoyuan, a lawyer for You who also blogs about the case.
"If they are tried based on the content of Chinese law, they cannot be found guilty."
China's court system is controlled by the ruling Communist Party, so trials are often short and almost invariably end in guilty verdicts.
Rights groups have urged Obama to speak out forcefully on human rights, including freedom of speech and the rule of law, during a China visit that starts on Sunday,
"In the nine months since you took office, the trend on human rights in China has been distinctly negative," Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group, said in an open letter to Obama.
"We urge that you...speak publicly and unambiguously in Shanghai and Beijing about human rights in China."
RULE OF LAW?
Obama told Reuters in an interview earlier this week that he would discuss human rights and dismissed critics who say he is soft-peddling on freedom to boost other agendas.
But Liu, the lawyer, did not expect Obama's visit to help his clients.
The three stumbled across the case after Lin, the bereaved mother, spent two years petitioning officials in Beijing and Fujian province for justice, alleging local officials and police had ties to the men who Yan was with before she died.
Fan Yanqiong helped the poorly educated Lin draw up a more coherent account of her claims and the other two made a video of Lin discussing her daughter's death.
"All she was doing was helping the disadvantaged, helping them demand their rights," Fan's husband Lin Hui, who is not related to Lin Xiuying, told Reuters by phone. "But now she's been targeted by local officials
(Additional reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Nick Macfie)