BEIJING -- The long green poster board outside the Beijing Intermediate People's Court on Justice Street in the center of the capital draws large crowds these days. It is here that authorities post information about the trials of activists involved in the 1989 demonstrations for democracy.

The notices list the name of each defendant, the crime, and time and place of the proceeding. Last week, for example, it was announced that a trial had begun in the case of Bao Zunxin, a philosopher who urged intellectuals in May 1989 to join students in the streets and appealed to the government to renounce the use of force to suppress the protests. He is charged with engaging in counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement.

A day later, there was another notice, this one about the trial of Liu Xiaobo, a university lecturer and literary critic who had tried to avert bloodshed and is facing the same charges as Bao.

Liu is the 18th activist to be prosecuted since Jan. 5, when seven others, including four students on the government's "most wanted" list, were sentenced to prison terms ranging from two to four years.

How the Chinese resolve the cases of the intellectuals will signal how harshly the Chinese government intends to deal with those it considers leaders of the 1989 democracy movement; Chinese and Western sources said authorities will likely punish them more severely than students in part to give legitimacy to Beijing's claim that the protests were a "counterrevolution."

Liu's and Bao's trial notices, like all the others posted here, said the proceedings would be open and in accordance with the law. On the surface, the court appeared to be following the letter of the law.

But in reality, legal experts and Chinese say, the absence of an impartial, independent legal system makes it virtually impossible for any Chinese, particularly those accused of political crimes, to receive anything approaching internationally accepted standards of justice.

From the moment of arrest until the day of release, those who fall within the labyrinth of the Chinese legal system come under the direct control of the Communist Party.

China's police, lawyers, prosecutors and judges are under the sole supervision of local politicians and law committees of the party, and the machinery of the legal system is designed, first and foremost, to uphold and protect the leadership of the party.

Furthermore, the outcomes of all cases are decided by a party-controlled adjudication committee of the court before the trial, according to foreign legal experts and Chinese sources.

"The fate of pro-democracy leaders, including that of {student leader} Wang Dan, will be determined by a small circle of high-level party leaders," said a court official, who did not want to be identified.

"The way the cards are stacked against the defendant makes it really dubious whether basic standards of fairness are being met," said American lawyer Jerome Cohen, a specialist on the Chinese legal system.

One reason the trials of activists involved in the 1989 demonstrations for democracy have been delayed until recently is that Communist Party leaders wanted to wait until the domestic political situation had stabilized and China's international standing had improved before moving ahead, one knowledgeable Chinese source said.

With the successful hosting of the Asian Games last fall, the completion of December's party plenum, and Beijing's gains from cooperating with U.N. sanctions against Iraq, authorities here felt more confident about bringing the activists to trial, the source said.

But the prosecutions of these activists have only served to highlight the lack of legal protection for the accused.

Many of those who are now being prosecuted had been detained for more than 1 1/2 years without formal charges, even though Chinese law specifies that those detained must be either formally charged or released within several months.

Chinese law also specifies that a criminal defendant may only engage the services of a defense lawyer once the prosecution indictment has been issued and the case is ready to go to trial.

But often, this means waiting until seven days -- the minimum period -- before trial until a lawyer is assigned, which deprives defendants of access to independent legal advice during the crucial early stages of police investigation and interrogation. In death penalty cases, the indictment can be issued as late as the actual day of trial.

By the time the case reaches the trial stage, most of the important investigation has been completed. "The trial is more like a sentencing hearing," said Alison Conner, a specialist in Chinese law at Hong Kong University.

Even if the defendants are permitted to hire a lawyer, the lawyer's ability to bring a defense is severely limited. As legal workers of the state, their primary loyalty is to the government and their constitutional duty is to uphold the socialist system.

They often see their most important obligation to the defendant as pleading for leniency and a reduced sentence, legal experts say. It is often difficult, if not impossible, to put forth a not-guilty plea, particularly in politically sensitive cases. China rejects the presumption of innocence.

"There is tremendous pressure on defendants to confess or acknowledge some sort of guilt," said Conner. The message that is repeated constantly to defendants is leniency to those who confess, severity for those who resist. A not-guilty plea is often seen as a mark of recalcitrance or failure to grasp one's guilt.

When authorities approached law professors at Beijing's universities about representing pro-democracy activists, the teachers were told that none of the defendants would be allowed to plead not guilty, Chinese sources said.