BEIJING - Lawyers for the family of a Chinese man allegedly tortured to death during an internal Communist Party investigation were thrown out of the court on Tuesday at the start of the landmark, sensitive trial of six party officials accused of the crime.
Mr Yu Qiyi, 42, a chief engineer for a state-owned investment firm in the eastern city of Wenzhou, drowned in April after being dunked repeatedly in a bucket of ice-cold water, state media said last week.
The accusations have shed light on the secret workings of the party's own internal judicial system, one lawyers say is rife with abuse.
The officials - five from the party's corruption watchdog, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, and a prosecutor - were indicted on charges of intentional infliction of harm leading to death. They face a maximum penalty of death.
But on the first day of the trial in Quzhou, a city not far from Wenzhou, the judge refused to allowed Mr Pu Zhiqiang, a lawyer representing Mr Yu's family, to question the first defendant, and then threw him and his colleague out of the court.
"They've expelled us and not allowed us to ask questions of the defendant, which is our legal right ... We're extremely angry about this," Mr Pu told Reuters.
Mr Pu added that the court had also banned the use of the name of the official who probably first ordered the probe into Mr Yu, saying he could only be referred to as "the leader".
"It's totally over the top," he said. "These six people have simply been picked to take the blame."
Mr Yu's ex-wife, Wu Qian, who was allowed to remain in court, said the party was trying to protect the real instigators of Mr Yu's death by getting the court to ban questions about who was behind the original investigation.
"They're covering up the truth," Ms Wu told Reuters.
The court did not answer telephone calls seeking comment.
Ms Chi Susheng, lawyer for Li Xiang, one of the accused, said she was equally angry at the court's behaviour, as her client wanted to use the opportunity to apologise.
"Li Xiang's evidence is what brought this case to court," Ms Cui told Reuters. "He wants to be able to apologise in court to the family."
Reuters was not immediately able to locate lawyers for the other five accused. Neither the government nor the party has publicly given an account of what happened. The story has received limited coverage in state-run media.
It is not precisely clear why Mr Yu was being investigated, according to his family's lawyers. Si Weijiang, another lawyer who has advised the family, said it was possibly because of improprieties related to a land deal.
Mr Yu had spent 38 days under "shuanggui", a form of extra-legal detention imposed on party officials being investigated for disciplinary violations.
Ousted Chinese politician Bo Xilai was subjected to "shuanggui" for 17 months before facing trial last month on charges of corruption and abuse of power.
During his trial, Bo recanted an earlier confession to party investigators saying it was made under psychological pressure. A verdict is expected in the coming weeks.
Investigators put Mr Yu's head in a bucket of ice-cold water and held it down repeatedly, eventually causing his death, according to Mr Si. Mr Yu was also beaten and his body scarred by what appeared to be cigarette butt marks.
Mr Yu's death comes as China wages war on corruption. President Xi Jinping has pledged to go after "tigers" and "flies" in the battle against graft, referring to both political heavyweights and low-ranked officials.
Mr Pu said Mr Yu, who was made to strip naked before interrogators dunked his head, struggled and shouted during the questioning session, citing the indictment.
Photographs of Mr Yu taken by family members after his death showed an emaciated man who was "black and blue", Mr Pu said.
Mr Si said authorities had worked to keep information about the trial under wraps such as preventing lawyers from photocopying evidence and restricting the number of lawyers the family could hire.
The question of who authorised the harsh treatment of Mr Yu remained largely unanswered, Mr Pu said, adding the six officials were carrying out orders from the disciplinary commission.
"Who approved the use of such torture? The bucket and the ice cold water were already prepared in that place in advance," Mr Pu said, speaking earlier. "These people have not been investigated yet."
Most Chinese criminal trials are over within days, often after just a single day. The country's courts rarely acquit defendants in criminal cases.