A vocal environmentalist faced charges of "illegal business operation" in a court in Hainan yesterday for self-publishing books on environmental conflicts caused by government-backed projects.
The prosecution of Liu Futang, a former forestry official, is aimed at stifling dissent over widespread pollution on the mainland, analysts said.
Prosecutors accused Liu, 63, of printing and distributing 18,000 copies of books worth 464,000 yuan (HK$568,000), and illegally obtaining 78,000 yuan.
Most of the books were sent as gifts to environmental groups, government officials and Liu's friends. But prosecutors said Liu had accepted money from some recipients, and his daughter sold 14 copies of one book through an online store.
Zhou Ze, a lawyer who attended the three-hour trial at Longhua District People's Court in Haikou, said a woman from Sanya told the court she had only offered Liu money as compensation to cover printing costs.
Liu was detained in July, while receiving hospital treatment for high blood pressure and diabetes.
No verdict was handed down yesterday but some legal experts said the charges could result in a jail sentence of two to five years.
Zhou said the charges were groundless because Liu did not print the books with the intention of making a profit, and called the case "retaliation by local governments and interest groups" against Liu's harsh criticism of several big projects that destroyed valuable forests and disrupted people's lives.
Zhou also said there was a procedural problem with the trial because the exchange of evidence was carried out privately on Wednesday, showing that the court was reluctant to open the case to the public.
Liu has won several environmental awards in the past decade for exposing environmental conflicts through blogs and microblog postings. He landed in trouble after becoming involved in protests against a planned coal-fired power plant in Hainan's Yinggehai township.
Liu filed microblog reports on the protests against the project, owned by China Guodian, one of the mainland's biggest power companies, when all the traditional media had allegedly been silenced by the local government. He also featured the project in his latest book, The Tears of Hainan II.
Wu Zhu, a grass-roots environmentalist who tried to attend the trial but was prevented from doing so because of "limited space", said: "Obviously such moves have offended both the company and the government. The charges against Liu are revenge for his outspokenness."
Wu said the trial of Liu, once hailed as an "eco-guard" by state media including the People's Daily and Xinhua, showed the limits of local government tolerance when their interests were undermined.
"They may tolerate you for a while if you yell against pollution, but you will be removed immediately once you become a stumbling block to their pursuit of vested interests," Wu said.