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A photo described as showing human rights lawyer Xie Yang on trial is displayed on a computer in Beijing, China on May 8, 2017.The Associated Press

For anyone with the time and inclination, the 3,000 kilometres of roads to Beijing from Guanping, a village deep in the verdant mountains of southwest China next to Myanmar, make for a stunning expedition. A tour guide might talk up the highlands of southern Sichuan province, the culinary scene in Chengdu, the ancient imperial history of Xi'an and the remnants of the Great Wall around the modern capital.

But Chen Jiangang, a lawyer who has attracted prominence abroad and anger at home for publicizing shocking allegations of Chinese torture in custody, was on a very different kind of road trip when he set off from Guanping last week. After several dozen armed security forces suddenly descended upon him in the midst of a family vacation, he was forced to drive back to Beijing in his Honda Accord accompanied by two members of China's secret police and an official with the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Justice.

The long, slow trip back — a kind of mobile house arrest that he recounted in an interview with the Globe and Mail — marked one of the more bizarre entries in the annals of Chinese enforcement of justice, as authorities kept Mr. Chen on the road while a client was suddenly put on trial far away.

Read more: Shuanggui: The harsh, hidden side of China's war on graft, and how one man disappeared into it

On Monday morning, the lawyer woke up 1,200 kilometres from the courtroom where Xie Yang, one of hundreds of Chinese human rights defenders rounded up during a 2015 crackdown, was tried for "inciting subversion of state power and disrupting court order."

Mr. Chen was his defence lawyer, and documented Mr. Xie's detailed descriptions of sleep deprivation and painful physical mistreatment during interrogation.

Their publication provoked international criticism, including a rare joint letter sent to China by 11 countries, including Canada, expressing concern over "credible claims of torture" by Mr. Xie and others. The intense interest in his case was reflected in a crush of diplomats and journalists who attempted to attend his trial in late April – but it never took place.

The real trial began instead on Monday with little advance notice. Mr. Xie, represented not by Mr. Chen but by government-appointed lawyers, pleaded guilty.

Chinese authorities sought to cultivate a picture of transparency and rigorous application of the law, providing live updates of court proceedings on social media and boasting that "domestic and overseas journalists" were allowed to attend.

"Xie told the court that his rights 'had been fully protected' by the police and procuratorate, and stated that he had not been coerced into a confession nor had he been subjected to torture," the state-run Xinhua news agency reported. Mr. Xie acknowledged being "brainwashed" into wanting to "overthrow the existing system and develop Western constitutionalism in China," the court's social-media account said.

Mr. Xie's supporters, however, called him an innocent man stuck in a system that had sought mightily to break him. Mr. Xie himself last year wrote: "If, one day in the future, I do confess – whether in writing or on camera or on tape – that will not be the true expression of my own mind. It may be because I've been subjected to prolonged torture."

And Mr. Chen's forced road trip offered a vivid reminder of the tactics that underlie China's conduct of justice, which commonly relies on forced disappearances and other bureaucratic manoeuvres to "intimidate, frighten, punish and control," said Frances Eve, a researcher at Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

"Police use these tactics to control the release of information and the actions of the person, thus making it harder to rally support and solidarity, while also trying to cower them into submission and make life unbearable."

For Mr. Chen, it began last week when as many as 50 people descended on him, some bearing assault rifles, when he was eating lunch in Guanping with his family, along with Zhang Baocheng and his wife, another couple that had accompanied them.

It was like being "kidnapped by bandits," Mr. Chen said.

The two families had planned to drive for several weeks, including through Xishuangbanna, a region famed for wild elephants. After being detained for more than a day, Mr. Zhang and his wife were allowed to continue their travels. But they could not go anywhere alone. Two local police and three secret police from Beijing followed their every move.

Mr. Zhang, who is part of the New Citizens Movement, which advocates for civil rights, could use his phone and surf the Internet, but "I could not leave their sight," he said.

"It is farcical, but I think it's also very sad. Because anyone living in this country can lose part or most of their freedom at any moment," he said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Chen's wife and children were flown home accompanied by secret police. Mr. Chen had his car, so he set out with the three others back to Beijing. But they did not allow him to take the wheel, and stayed by his side day and night, even sharing hotel rooms.

By Monday afternoon the trial was over and Mr. Chen had returned to Beijing, embittered by the experience. On the road, there was no trouble, "no violence or threats," he said.

But "in this country, citizens have no freedom or rights. People are basically kidnapped like slaves," he said.

And his return left many questions unanswered, including why he chose such a distant place for a family vacation in the first place.

China's southern borders have been a common exit point for defectors – and in February, Mr. Xie's own wife and daughters sneaked out in that direction, arriving in Thailand before being brought to the United States, according to an Associated Press report Monday.

Mr. Chen confirmed that authorities were worried about where he was travelling. "The secret police sent from Beijing just didn't let me get close to the border," he said. But he did not directly answer questions about whether that had been his plan.

Mr. Zhang, meanwhile, said he worries that Beijing also may not be safe Mr. Chen.

"China is strange," Mr. Zhang said. "If they want to find an innocent person guilty, they could frame him" on charges of prostitution, tax evasion or the like.

"It is likely that they will find someone to stigmatize him so that they can take action. I'm very worried about him," he said.

"I would put the chances of him being detained at 50 per cent."

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