BEIJING — Prominent Chinese rights activist Xu Zhiyong remained silent in court on Wednesday in protest of charges that his campaigning against corruption and other mainstream issues had disrupted public order. Chinese authorities blocked all discussion of the trial online, deleting posts on social media sites. They also barred journalists from getting near the courtroom.
Xu’s lawyer says that during the trial Wednesday he and his client refused to speak in protest of the charges brought against him. The judge recessed the proceedings because of the protest. VOA was unable to reach Xu’s lawyer for comment but he posted a short message saying that he and his client will continue to maintain their silence during the trial.
Outside the courtroom, police kept reporters several blocks away from the facility.
Authorities harassed a BBC Beijing correspondent as he delivered a live standup broadcast on the proceedings. CNN’s Beijing correspondent says he was pushed, punched and kicked by Chinese security as he tried to get closer to the courtroom’s entrance.
Xu’s trial is one of the biggest hearings in several years for a prominent rights activist. The same court has been used for other sensitive trials in the past, including the now jailed Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo.
China’s Foreign Ministry says reporters at the scene ignored warnings from police and that authorities were acting in accordance with the law. The ministry says courts have the right to maintain order outside and inside the courtroom.
Rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang says that while it is ordinary for courts to maintain order in the courtroom, there was no such regulation - that he was aware of - to bar reporters from freely covering what should be the proceedings of a major trial.
Pu says the court really only has the right to maintain order at its doorsteps, but not down the street, adding that the right of reporters to cover the trial should be protected by the principle of freedom of the press.
Some supporters gathered outside the courtroom and briefly protested before being taken away by police. One supporter told VOA that he did not understand why Xu was being charged for his advocacy.
How is it that Xu has disrupted order? the supporter asked. Who has he disrupted? We are society, we are the public, they are the ones who are disrupting order, he says.
Xu Zhiyong, a 40 year-old legal scholar and founder of the New Citizens Movement, a grassroots civil society group that seeks to promote rule of law in China, has campaigned for high-ranking officials to publicly disclose their assets.
The group was initially encouraged when China’s new leader, Xi Jinping assumed power in 2012, believing he would uphold the rule of law and the constitution. However, over the past year, dozens of group members have been taken into custody as the government cracks down on dissent.
At least seven other supporters will face trial this week in Beijing.
When asked about the case, a U.S. embassy spokesman said Washington is “deeply concerned” about the trial and prosecution of Xu in what it says is retribution for his public campaign to expose official corruption.
The U.S. government is calling for the immediate release of Xu and others, the spokesman said, adding that the prosecution is part of a pattern of arrests and detentions of public interest lawyers, Internet activists, journalists and others in China who peacefully challenge official policy and actions.
VOA Mandarin Service’s Fred Wang also contributed to this report