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Prominent Rights Activist Faces Trial in China

FILE - This July 17, 2009 file photo shows legal scholar Xu Zhiyong at a meeting in Beijing, China.

FILE - This July 17, 2009 file photo shows legal scholar Xu Zhiyong at a meeting in Beijing, China.

A prominent Chinese rights activist and legal scholar who has waged a high-profile campaign against government corruption will go on trial Wednesday. Xu Zhiyong is the founder of a group that advocates for the rule of law in China and urges top officials to improve government transparency by publicly disclosing their assets.

Xu Zhiyong and other members of the New Citizens Movement have been accused of inciting five separate protests in Beijing last year. Two focused on the education rights of the children of migrant workers. At the other gatherings, members called on government officials to disclose their assets and urged the public to sign a petition in support of the proposal.

Officials say that by gathering in some cases more than a hundred people and attracting public attention to the issues they were advocating, Xu and others created what the indictment says was “serious chaos.” There were no reports of any being injured, but the indictment says Xu and others obstructed police in carrying out their duties.

Xu’s lawyer Zhang Qingfang says his client is innocent.

Silent protest

Zhang says Xu Zhiyong will remain silent in court to protest the court’s handling of the case. He says that after the hearing the defendants will issue their reasoning in the case and their opinions.

Zhang says one key disagreement with the court’s handling of the case is that Xu and others have been charged with disrupting public order in connection with the same five events, but are being tried separately. Zhang and rights advocates say that is a violation of China’s laws and an attempt to cover up the truth.

Zhang says that cases that refer to the same event need to be tried in the same court. He says that authorities are dividing up the trials so that defendants have no way of knowing what the other prosecutors are saying and what is going on in the other trials.

Dozens of members of the New Citizens Movement were detained in China last year as they tried to exercise their rights to assembly and freedom of expression. Chinese human rights defenders say more than 60 are connected with the movement that advocates social justice, doing good for society and civil participation.

Rights lawyer Chen Jiangang, who is representing two other members of the group scheduled to go on trial this Friday, says that while his clients are in good spirits, it was clear from the moment they were detained what the verdict in their case would be.

Chen says the results will not come through the trial, but are decided by powerful institutions and other high-ranking officials. He says the judgments for the trials have already been written.

'Ordinary criminal case'

Chinese authorities say the “ordinary criminal case” is being handled in accordance with China’s laws and accuse any who would raise criticisms as meddling in the country’s judicial affairs.

Ye Shiwei of the advocacy group Human Rights in China says Xu and others are facing criminal charges for activities that are clearly peaceful and legal under Chinese and international law.

“The fact that they are being put on trial already seriously undermines China's professed adherence to the rule of law. Any potential irregularities in the case will also contribute to undermining the image that China is trying to project to the world,” says Ye.

The trial is being closely watched by the international community and rights advocates. China has long used its courts to silence dissent. But China’s new leader Xi Jinping has pledged to bring more justice to the country, reform its judicial system and fight corruption. Some see the trial of Xu and others as a test of his commitment to that pledge.