Police officers take away a supporter of rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang near the Beijing Second Intermediate People's Court during his trial in Beijing, Dec. 14, 2015. Pu went on trial Monday on charges of provoking trouble with commentaries on social media that were critical of the ruling Communist Party. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

BEIJING — “Picking quarrels." In another time, in another place, Pu Zhiqiang might have chuckled at the charge.

The Tiananmen Square survivor-turned civil rights lawyer has spent his life picking fights he ought to lose, defending labor camp survivors, journalists, and artist Ai Weiwei.

If he had not spent the last 19 months in detention, blocked from communicating with his wife and the world, he might relish the ridiculousness of the word “quarrel,” posting online about the irony of it all: a free speech advocate detained for speaking, a lawyer at risk of being abandoned by the law.

Instead, on Monday, at a court in Beijing, Pu, 50, stood trial for the very real, very serious charges of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” and “inciting ethnic hatred.”

As proof of his quarrel-picking, Chinese prosecutors marshaled seven weibo posts—the Chinese equivalents of Tweets. In them, Pu comments on the cover-up of a deadly high-speed rail crash, mocks members of the Chinese Communist Party, and criticizes the government's handling of Tibet and Xinjiang.

In court on Monday, Pu acknowledged writing all seven posts and apologized for his "sharp" tone, said lawyer Shang Baojun. His other lawyer, Mo Shaoping, said that Pu expressed hope for a verdict that would "stand the test of history."

As much as is possible in a closed-door trial, Pu's case is being closely watched by civil rights groups in China and abroad, as well as by foreign embassies in Beijing that hope to see China make good on its much-touted move to strengthen the rule of law — even amid a crackdown on lawyers and scholars.

The case has attracted so much attention because of Pu's professional stature — his work has been praised by state-run magazines — and the fact he faces a near-certain conviction on what many consider a problematic, catch-all charge.

“The embassy of the United States remains concerned that Pu Zhiqiang, a prominent Chinese defense lawyer, is being tried on the vague charges of 'inciting ethnic hatred and picking quarrels and provoking trouble,'” said Dan Biers, deputy political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

"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 prosperous and stable china," he said, calling for his release.

The scene outside the court on Monday was decidedly unruly, with diplomats, journalists and Chinese petitioners pushed and cursed at by police. Biers was roughly shoved by plainclothes officers while trying to read his statement more than 100 meters from the courthouse. A U.S. Embassy spokesman expressed "great concern" over the incident.

U.S. diplomat Dan Biers was shoved by police as he delivered a statement outside the trial of Pu Zhiqiang on Dec. 14. (Emily Rauhala/The Washington Post)

Biers was joined by representatives from several countries, including Canada, Germany, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Human Rights Watch, the U.S.-based NGO, last week issued a call for ambassadors to attend the trial, though most embassies opted to send political officers with human rights portfolios instead.

The handling of Xu's case has been roundly criticized by foreign rights groups, including Human Rights Watch. "Nothing Pu Zhiqiang has written has violated any law, but the authorities’ treatment of him certainly has,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement.

“A guilty verdict will be an indictment of the Chinese government, its law, and its legal system – not of Pu.”

Pu is a legend among civil rights groups and lawyers in China. A former student leader, he survived the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square and went on to become a leading rights defender. He is known for taking and winning tough cases by sticking to the letter of the law.

"A simple theory he taught me is that, just like you have the father first and then the son, you have to have legitimate legal procedures — file the case first, gather evidence, prosecute — you can not prosecute and then find evidence," said a former client who only gave his surname, Xu, because he feared being arrested for speaking out.

Pu was detained in the spring of 2014 after attending a private gathering to mark the anniversary of Tiananmen Square and has been in police custody ever since. His detention was extended while prosecutors gathered evidence; he waited 19 months for his three-hour day in court.

For his wife, Meng Qun, Pu's high-profile case has been a private trial. In a profile by Jiang Xue, a journalist for the Hong Kong-based Asia Weekly, Meng described the anguish of not knowing her husband's fate.  She writes him letters to ease her worry. “When he’s released, I’ll show them to him so that he’ll know what I was thinking about all this time,” she said.

Reached by phone on Monday, Meng said she finally had the chance to see her husband. "His spirit is high, but he's lost a lot weight," she said.

Pu's lawyers and supporters said, despite the length of his detention, they still hoped for his release.

Said Xu, the former client: “Pu Zhiqiang told me, 'You must believe in justice.'"

 Liu Liu reported from Beijing.