BEIJING (Reuters) - A Chinese court on Friday upheld a $2 million fine for tax evasion against the country's most famous dissident, Ai Weiwei, after barring him from attending the hearing, in a case that critics accuse Beijing of using to muzzle the outspoken artist.
Ai had asked 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 artist said that Chinese police barred him from showing up in person, saying earlier he had "absolutely no hope" the court would rule in his favor.
"Today's verdict shows that this country, more than 60 years after its founding still has no basic legal process, still has no respect for the truth, still will never give taxpayers and citizens an ability to justify themselves," Ai said.
"The entire judiciary is shrouded in darkness," he told reporters at his home in northeastern Beijing after the verdict.
He has said he will 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 in 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.
The court did not answer calls seeking comment.
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.
The loss of his appeal underscores top leaders' increasing intolerance of dissent ahead of a tricky generational transition of power at the end of the year, when Vice President Xi Jinping almost certainly will be anointed to take over from Hu Jintao.
Courts, controlled by the ruling Communist Party, rarely accept lawsuits filed by dissidents, and almost never overturn appeals on existing decisions.
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 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.
($1 = 6.3702 Chinese yuan)
(Writing by Ben Blanchard, Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)