Fourteen people pleaded guilty to encouraging a riot in eastern China last year in which the local Communist Party chief was stripped half-naked in a mass protest that ultimately forced the local government to scrap a wastewater treatment project.
The official Xinhua News Agency said the defendants were prosecuted Wednesday on charges of encouraging mass violence against government buildings and intentionally damaging property in the city of Qidong in Jiangsu province north of Shanghai. Scores of police were hurt in the melee.
The sentences will be announced later, Xinhua said.
The case has prompted accusations that authorities are retaliating against the protesters after initially conceding to their demands by canceling the project.
"We admit that radical acts were committed, but that was because mere protesting would not have forced the government to change," said Zhang Peihong, a Shanghai-based lawyer who represents defendant Zhu Baosheng.
Zhu is accused of smashing a clock in the lobby of the municipal government's office building, pouring looted liquor from the roof of a car and forcing a city official to wear a shirt emblazoned with pro-environmental slogans.
Zhang said he argued in court that the case failed to take into account negligence on the part of local officials.
"We see no sincerity on behalf of the state," the lawyer said.
Government actions leading up to such protests need to be examined and wrongdoing exposed, said Liu Shanying, a political scientist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
"You must investigate both sides, but in this case, we haven't seen any scrutiny directed at the officials involved," Liu said.
Despite that, unlawful acts such as assault and destruction of property must be punished, he added. "You should defend your rights within the law."
Pollution has become a major cause of unrest in China, where the growing middle class have become more outspoken in their opposition to environmentally risky projects.
Last year, the Chinese also staged large-scale protests against a proposed copper plant in the southwestern province of Sichuan and a planned expansion of a petrochemical factory in the eastern province of Zhejiang. Like the Qidong project, the other two were eventually scrapped.
In Qidong, thousands of people upset with the wastewater treatment project stormed the Qidong municipal government compound and turned at least one police car on its side at the protest on July 28.
Citing court documents, the state-run Southern Metropolis Daily from southern China said the defendants forcibly broke through the police cordon to attack and to smash government buildings, injuring at least 90 police officers, damaging several cars and causing property loss of more than 230,000 yuan ($37,000).
It also said the city's party chief was stripped half-naked after he refused to wear a T-shirt boycotting the project while the mayor was forced to wear such a T-shirt.
The protesters were worried that the wastewater from the Japanese company Oji Paper in upstream Nantong city would not be cleaned enough before being discharged into the sea near Qidong, although Oji had assured the wastewater would be properly treated.
The grass-roots protests reflect the balancing act Chinese leaders are performing between maintaining public stability and pushing economic growth, and between local officials who want to attract industry and a public who do not want it in their neighborhoods.