By Sui-Lee Wee
BEIJING (Reuters) - China has barred its most famous dissident Ai Weiwei from showing up in court to hear the verdict of his appeal against a $2 million fine for tax evasion, a case that critics accuse Beijing of using to muzzle the outspoken artist.
Ai is urging a Beijing court to overturn the city tax office's rejection of his appeal against the tax evasion penalty imposed on the company he works for, Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd., which produces his art and designs.
The dissident told Reuters that Chinese police have barred him from showing up in court on Friday, and that he has "absolutely no hope" the court would rule in his favor.
He has pledged to press on with legal challenges, ensuring that he will continue to be a thorn in the government's side.
Beijing's Chaoyang District Court heard the case at a closed hearing last June. Ai, 55, had called the hearing unfair after police warned him to stay away and blocked journalists from approaching the cramped court room which only had five seats.
Tax authorities are demanding the company that markets his work pay a 15 million yuan ($2.4 million) penalty for tax evasion. Supporters of Ai, whose 81-day detention last year sparked an international outcry, have said the tax case is part of the government's effort to muzzle China's most famous social critic.
"Absolutely no hope," Ai told Reuters earlier by telephone, when asked what he thought his chances were for a favorable verdict.
"From the very beginning, the public security agency told us: 'If the state calls you a tax evader, will it change its mind? Don't be too naive'."
If he loses his appeal, it will underscore top leaders' increasing intolerance of dissent ahead of a tricky transition of power at the end of the year.
He said he would continue to file lawsuits, which he called "a responsibility to society", if he loses the appeal.
Courts, controlled by the ruling Communist Party, rarely accept lawsuits filed by dissidents, but Ai did not view the acceptance of his lawsuit as a victory.
One of his lawyers, Pu Zhiqiang, said previously the hearing was "grossly unfair" and that the court gave him very limited time to make his case and only one minute to make his closing argument.
Pu said that officials had not shown him any original documents with evidence of the alleged tax evasion and had also held a closed hearing last year, which he said violated a law requiring open hearings.
"In fact, these actions are really silly," Ai said. "It hurts the respect that people have in the law and the trust in government. A proper government should be able to avoid this. It doesn't make sense to anyone."
The bearded artist has been a persistent irritant for authorities and has parried efforts to silence him, communicating with his supporters on Twitter and calling for a public forum to discuss his tax case.
Government efforts to muzzle Ai have frequently backfired, as demonstrated by an outpouring of public sympathy - and cash - in response to the tax penalty. About 30,000 people donated money to help Ai cover an 8.45 million yuan ($1.3 million) bond required to contest the tax charges. Many of Ai's supporters folded money into paper planes that were flown over the walls of his home.
"Although we've spent millions of dollars, it's worth it because we've truly proven the state of the judiciary today," Ai said.
($1 = 6.3702 Chinese yuan)
(Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee, Editing by Don Durfee and Jonathan Thatcher)