BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei said he was ready to continue to battle the country's legal system if he loses a second appeal on Thursday against a huge tax evasion fine, a case that has badly tarnished China's human rights reputation.
The $2.4 million (1.4 million pounds) tax evasion case is widely seen as an attempt to muzzle the outspoken artist who has repeatedly criticised his government for not sticking to the rule of law.
Ai, who has waged a near five-month long legal battle with a Beijing tax agency, said on Wednesday that he had little hope of winning the second appeal.
"We will keep trying, we will not stop," Ai, 55, told Reuters by telephone.
"This price is large, but if I don't bear this, it will be a loss to society."
Ai had asked the Chaoyang District court to overturn the city tax office's rejection of his appeal against the 15 million yuan ($2.38 million) tax evasion penalty imposed on the company he works for, Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd, which produces his art and designs.
"My efforts are not just for the company, but it's also so that this matter will have a clear record," he said.
"This record will tell us: a price must be paid for defending our rights. At the same time, we can tell the government that they can't treat people like this, because they pay a huge price too."
Ai, whose 81-day detention last year sparked an international outcry, said the government had spent massive resources on his case, including deploying dozens of police to flank the road leading to the court during the hearing and appeal this year.
If he loses this appeal, it will be a predictable outcome in a country where the courts toe the government line. It will also underscore Beijing's increasing intolerance of dissent ahead of a tricky transition of power later this year.
The bearded artist denounced the court's July decision as a sham, saying that the closed-door hearing was unfair. Police barred him from showing up for the verdict in person.
Ai said he believed the court's unusual decision to accept his appeal is due to the global interest in his case. Courts, controlled by the ruling Communist Party, rarely accept lawsuits filed by dissidents and appeals against official decisions are routinely dismissed.
The case comes on the heels of a score of other high-profile cases, including the fleeing to the U.S. embassy of blind, self-taught legal activist Chen Guangcheng.
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.
"I believe we will win in the end, though I don't know when," Ai said. "Because ultimately a country will never be able to have no fairness and justice, there is no country in the world like that."
Editing by Jonathan Thatcher