One of China's most celebrated human rights lawyers went on trial over online comments critical of the ruling Communist party, as police scuffled with supporters and journalists outside the courthouse.

Pu Zhiqiang, who has represented labour camp victims and dissident artist Ai Weiwei, was detained a year-and-a-half ago in a nationwide crackdown on dissent.

Reporter's notebook

Today's trial was not just about the fate of one of China's best known dissidents. It also concerns the future of free speech in China, which is supposed to be enshrined in the country's constitution.

But there wasn't much sign of that outside Beijing's No 2 Intermediate Court on Monday. Police pushed away diplomats, journalists and a small group of supporters.

A few years ago the police probably would have used more robust force. Given the current crackdown on dissent of any kind here, the fact that there were displays of defiance was perhaps unexpected.

One man shouted that President Xi was"despicable". A short distance away a group of Pu's supporters furtively unveiled banners. The dramatic Chinese characters had a simple message: 'Free Pu Zhiquiang'.

In today's China that's enough to get you arrested - let alone insulting the president.

Adrian Brown - Beijing

He faces a maximum of eight years in jail on charges of "inciting ethnic hatred" and "picking quarrels and provoking trouble", according to his lawyer Mo Shaoping.

Beijing's No 2 Intermediate People's Court considered the evidence - seven posts the lawyer made on Weibo between 2011 and 2014 - on Monday, Mo told the AFP news agency.

Weibo is a hugely popular Twitter-like social media platform in China. 

Police crackdown

Al Jazeera's Adrian Brown, reporting from outside the courthouse in Beijing, said that several people were dragged away from the scene when police clashed with Pu's supporters and journalists.

"The trial of Pu is extremely sensitive. There were extraordinary glimpses of defiance by a small group of supporters. They, like the media, were bundled away by plain-clothes police, some wearing smiley badges," Brown said.

"A short distance away a group of Pu supporters furtively unfurled two banners for our cameras. One said 'Pu Zhiqiang is not guilty.' Another read 'Free Pu Zhiqiang.'

"One elderly woman told me that some of her friends were taken away by police. 'There are no human rights in China,' she said."

Officers and unidentified plain-clothes policemen shouted at Dan Biers, a senior US diplomat, and pushed him as he tried to read a statement condemning the trial.

The online posts at the centre of the case include messages questioning a state media account of a deadly knife attack blamed on people from the mainly Muslim region of Xinjiang, and another message accusing Communist party officials of "lying".

"Lawyers and civil society leaders such as Mr Pu should not be subject to continuing repression but should be allowed to contribute to the building of a prosperous and stable China," Biers said.

"We urge Chinese authorities to release Mr Pu and call upon China to uphold fundamental civil rights."

Diplomats shoved

A diplomat speaking on behalf of the European Union was also shouted down as she delivered a statement outside the court criticising the process.

"China has too few good lawyers - he was one of the few," Yao Lianshe, a citizen who says he goes to as many trials as he can despite frequent police harassment, told AFP.

"Nothing in China will ever change for the better unless the people are unafraid to stand up to authority and bear witness."

Pu, 50, is the latest person to be tried in a crackdown on critics of the Communist party, which has seen hundreds detained and dozens sent to prison.

The trial on Monday lasted five hours and it could take a couple of days before the verdict is out, Brown reported.

Analysts say Pu is virtually certain to be convicted in the party-controlled court.

Al Jazeera's Adrian Brown reported from the courthouse where scuffles broke out between Pu's supporters and police [Al Jazeera]

Pu supporters unfurled banners for Al Jazeera's cameras, saying 'Pu Zhiqiang is not guilty' and 'Free Pu Zhiqiang' [Al Jazeera]

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies