A court in China has sentenced a prominent anti-corruption activist to four years in prison for allegedly "gathering a crowd to disrupt public order."
The activist, Xu Zhiyong is the founder of the New Citizens' Movement. The group advocates for rule of law and other issues, including the rights of the children of migrant workers and for the public disclosure of the assets of high-ranking officials.
Shortly after the verdict was read, Xu's lawyer, Zhang Qingfang, came out of Beijing's No. 1 Intermediate People's Court and tried to speak with reporters. But he was quickly surrounded by plain-clothes and uniformed police and forcibly escorted off. Authorities say they were trying to protect his safety and maintain order outside the court.
Zhang adamantly disagreed and protested as police carted him away.
"I am perfectly safe," he told police. "It is not the journalists who are infringing on my rights."
Much like during Xu Zhiyong's one-day trial last week, authorities had the area around the court locked down with dozens of police vehicles on hand, and cars and police at every street corner. Authorities harassed foreign journalists including those from VOA when they tried to get closer or conduct interviews with Xu's lawyer, or to conduct basic reporting activities such as taking pictures.
Despite his protests, Zhang was eventually shoved into a police van and taken away even though he had told police repeatedly that his car was parked nearby.
Zhang said police kept him in the van for about 10 minutes and then dropped him off near his car.
"We drove around for a little while until journalists had dispersed," Zhang said.
He said that while he has been released police are still monitoring his movements.
The lawyer said Xu would issue an appeal of the four-year sentence. However, later Sunday on social media, Zhang was pessimistic that it would make any difference at all. Zhang said that he would submit the appeal but make no arguments in support, as the entire proceedings in his view were illegal.
Zhang said that even before Xu was indicted, a task force was set up that included high-ranking prosecutorial officials to handle the case. He also noted that friends within the government had warned him prior to the trial about the sensitivity of the case.
Latest big trial
Xu's trial is the biggest political rights hearing that China has seen since Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2009.
Liu's trial was held at the same courthouse.
Rights activist said the sentencing is a worrying sign that authorities in China are stepping up their crackdown on dissent. Even so, the causes advocated by Xu and others in the group are widely discussed in Chinese state media and by the public.
Teng Biao is a rights lawyer and a long-time colleague of Xu. He said the 40-year-old legal scholar has been promoting citizens’ rights for 10 years and has done so legally and peacefully.
"The sentence of four years for disrupting public order is completely illegal," Teng said. "This shows that the rule of law in China is at a very bad state, and people like Xu Zhiyong who promote the rule of law are badly needed."
Teng said the chances of Xu's appeal succeeding are slim.
"Chinese courts are not independent and this case is controlled by a number of other departments," he said. "Xu will continue to appeal because there is still some hope. His daughter was just born and four years is too long, too cruel."
US expresses concern
Western governments have voiced their concern about the case, but China has quickly accused them of meddling in the country's internal affairs. Shortly after the verdict was released, the U.S. State Department issued a statement voicing Washington's deep disappointment with the ruling.
Washington has urged Beijing to release Xu and other political prisoners immediately and guarantee them the protections and freedoms they are entitled under China's international human rights commitments.
The Chinese government has been waging a drive against the New Citizens' Movement for nearly a year. The group advocates civil participation and tries to work within the system to promote change. This month, seven members of the group have been tried or are awaiting trial. Three others were tried in December, but Xu is the first to be sentenced.
All of those who are being tried have been accused of participating in the same five events that authorities say disrupted public order. Lawyers say that by law, they should all be tried together and not separately.