BEIJING - Three Chinese rights activists on trial for distributing books advocating a peaceful end to dictatorships on Friday dismissed their lawyers, bringing a halt to the proceedings.
The trial in the southern city of Guangzhou comes as President Xi Jinping's government has ratcheted up pressure on dissent, wary of any organised challenge to the rule of the Communist Party.
The activists, among them prominent human rights lawyer Tang Jingling, were arrested last June for "inciting subversion", a charge that carries a maximum sentence of 15 years, although lawyers expect they could face terms of up to five years.
Police accused Tang, 44, Yuan Xinting, 44, and Wang Qingying, 31, of "publicly inciting others to participate in a non-violent civil disobedience movement," according to a copy of the indictment published online by U.S.-based rights group Chinese Human Rights Defenders.
The men distributed books such as Gene Sharp's "From Dictatorship to Democracy" and "Self-Liberation", police said, and accused Tang of "instigating others to participate in the non-violent 'Citizen Non-cooperation Movement'." Tang's wife, Wang Yanfang, told Reuters that Tang dismissed his lawyers after the court rejected requests to call witnesses and to keep Communist Party members off the bench, causing the suspension of the trial.
The other two defendants followed suit, Wang added.
Telephone calls to the court, seeking comment, went unanswered.
Foreign diplomats were barred from the courthouse, said Liu Zhengqing, one of Tang's lawyers.
The U.S. Embassy said it was "deeply concerned" about the trial and called for the release of the activists.
Lawyers for the three men said they would enter not-guilty pleas "because we can't see what crimes they have committed", Sui Muqing, a lawyer for Wang, told Reuters before the trial.
Tang was dismissed from his law firm after he gave legal aid to villagers in Guangdong in 2005, as they sought to remove an allegedly corrupt village leader.
Wang, who taught at a university in Guangdong, and Yuan, who was formerly an editor, were both fired from their jobs after they signed the "Charter 08" manifesto, Chinese Human Rights Defenders said. "Charter 08", which called for democratic reforms to the one-party state, was started by jailed Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo.
Tang, Wang and Yuan were taken into custody in May 2014 and initially held for the crime of "causing a disturbance".