BEIJING The trial of a suspected gang boss as part of a sweeping crackdown on mafia activities in southwestern China's Chongqing took an unexpected twist with the arrest of his lawyer on charges of fabricating evidence.
Over the past several months Chongqing, run by the ambitious former commerce minister Bo Xilai, has mounted a sweeping and much publicised campaign against gangs, handing out death sentences and publishing gory pictures of gang victims.
Bo, son of one of Mao Zedong's chief economic officials, has used the anti-gang campaign to vie with up-and-coming Party member Wang Yang, an ally of President Hu Jintao, who has launched his own corruption crackdown in wealthy Guangdong.
Wang preceded Bo as Communist Party boss of Chongqing.
The mafia crackdown's focus has now switched to alleged gang leader Gong Gangmo's lawyer, Li Zhuang, who has been arrested on charges of allegedly falsifying evidence and instructing his client to lie in court.
Chinese lawyers have complained for many years that the law provides too little protection for the accused and their advocates, and in particular that provisions on evidence fabrication are vague and open to abuse by police.
The Beijing Youth Daily said police were charging Li with, among other things, telling Gong to lie and say he had been tortured.
Li told the newspaper in an interview though that these allegations were baseless.
"Everything I've done has been in accordance with the law on lawyers," he said.
The Chongqing authorities deny wrongdoing.
Li's treatment has infuriated a group of mainly Beijing lawyers, who have written a letter demanding police from outside of Chongqing be bought in to investigate the case, which they say has defamed their entire profession.
"The detention of and rapid 'defaming' of Li Zhuang has had a huge negative effect on the entire law profession," the report quoted lawyer Li Fangping as saying.
Another lawyer, Zhang Kai, told Reuters that what they were most concerned about was the way Li was arrested, with little regard for due legal process.
"This is just the kind of thing that happens to defence lawyers, and is especially common when it comes to sensitive cases like this, involving the mafia," Zhang said by telephone. "If there were allegations of torture, they should have been investigated."
The anti-mafia campaign has been marked by graphic tales of murder and extortion committed by the cops-turned-robbers, as citizens have besieged government offices waving bloody photos and swords allegedly used by the gangs.
The deep ties between police and organised crime hark back to China's tumultuous years before the Communist Party won power in 1949, when local warlords and rich businessmen had close connections with the criminal underworld.
At least three people have been sentenced to death so far.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by bill Tarrant)