Prominent Chinese rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang fired his government-appointed lawyer “in the first minute” of his trial on Wednesday, as the final case linked to the 2015 crackdown on legal activism that resulted in about 300 lawyers and activists being detained got under way. After almost 3½ years behind bars, Wang, 42, stood trial in a closed-door hearing in the northern port city of Tianjin on a charge of subverting state power. The hearing, which the court said involved “state secrets”, was criticised by other lawyers and rights groups for breaching Chinese law. Isolated, tortured and mentally scarred … the plight of China’s persecuted human rights lawyers Wang was detained in August 2015, less than a month after Beijing launched a nationwide crackdown on lawyers and activists that critics said was designed to stymie China’s emerging rights defence movement. Most of the detainees were later released, although several reported being tortured while in detention. The event became known as the “709 crackdown” after the day – July 9 – on which it began. Wang was not charged until February 2017, and the authorities have never explained why his case took so long to process. His wife, Li Wenzu, was prevented from travelling to Tianjin to attend the hearing by police officers and security guards who gathered outside her home in Beijing before sunrise on Wednesday. “He is an innocent man but has been illegally detained for more than three years and the authorities are breaking laws the entire time. Turning down our lawyers and prohibiting them from meeting Wang … forfeiting his communication rights for 3½ years,” Li said in an interview. “It’s close to absurd that I have wished for him to be tried fairly in a court of law when the authorities have been breaking the law the entire time … Wang Quanzhang is innocent and he should be released immediately,” she said. Supporters who were able to reach the Tianjin No 2 Intermediate People’s Court were vocal in their demands for Wang to be freed, but were soon confronted and silenced by plain-clothes police officers. Videos and photographs shared on social media showed Yang Chunlin, a rights activist from Jiamusi in Heilongjiang province, being taken away by security personnel after screaming: “I support Wang Quanzhang! Release Quanzhang! Wang Quanzhang is a good man.” Another supporter, Zhang Zhecheng, from Jiangxi province, was also taken away for displaying a sign calling for Wang’s release, the online posts showed. Along with Wang’s relatives, Western diplomats and journalists were also barred from attending the hearing. The court said in a statement on Wednesday afternoon that a verdict would be issued at a later date. Wife of detained Chinese lawyer ‘silent’ for 1,000 days begins 60-mile march in search of answers According to a text message conversation between Li and Liu Weiguo – the lawyer appointed by the government to represent Wang in court – and seen by the South China Morning Post , the defendant made it very clear that he would not require the services of a state-sponsored legal representative. “I was sacked in the first minute, as the hearing began,” Liu said in a text. “I walked out of the courtroom … I don’t know what happened afterwards.” Cheng Hai, who was Li’s choice to represent Wang but was prohibited by the authorities from doing so, said Liu’s dismissal was indicative of Wang’s mistrust of state-appointed lawyers. “[Liu] probably failed to represent Wang’s legal rights properly in court but this could also be his [Wang’s] attempt at trying to get a better defence,” he said. Trial by fire: three years on from the crackdown that put China’s nascent human rights law movement to the test Wang, who began offering legal advice to Falun Gong practitioners and farmers fighting eviction while still a student at Shandong University in the late 1990s, could face up to 15 years in jail if convicted, Cheng said. Liu could not be reached for comment as his phone was switched off. Wang Yu, the first lawyer to be swept up in the 709 crackdown, said in an in interview that Wang Quanzhang’s prolonged detention was unlawful and called for his release. “This violates China’s criminal law. The length of his detention is beyond the permitted limit and is a severe violation of personal freedom and judicial principles,” she said. “If Wang Quanzhang is convicted … [it] would be a case of blatant political persecution.” Shanghai court accepts detained rights lawyer’s defamation case against state-backed media Xie Yanyi, another 709 lawyer who was released on bail last year, said in an interview that he believed Wang was probably tortured during his years behind bars as he had heard him “screaming in pain” when they were both in the same detention centre. According to the charge sheet issued by prosecutors in Tianjin, Wang had “long been infiltrated by a foreign hostile power”, had received overseas training and funding on multiple occasions, and represented other human rights defenders in 2014 and Falun Gong practitioners in 2013. Despite the charges, Cheng said Chinese law did not prohibit international cooperation on legal issues. “Wang was simply practising his legal duty as a lawyer to defend others,” he said. “The whole indictment against Wang amounts to turning black into white by charging a lawyer for doing his job.” Human rights organisation Amnesty International issued a statement on Wednesday demanding Wang’s immediate and unconditional release. “This is a sham trial in which Wang Quanzhang is being persecuted only for peacefully defending human rights,” said Doriane Lau, a China researcher from the rights group.