China activist lawyer Xu Zhiyong goes on trial

Government has waged a 10-month campaign against Xu’s New Citizens’ Movement

Supporters of Chinese human rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong outside the  Beijing No 1 Intermediate People’s Court in Beijing, China today. Photograph: EPA

Supporters of Chinese human rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong outside the Beijing No 1 Intermediate People’s Court in Beijing, China today. Photograph: EPA

 

Prominent Chinese rights advocate Xu Zhiyong went on trial today in the country’s most high-profile dissident case in years, but his lawyer said he refused to offer any defence and called the court unjust.

Outside the courtroom, Mr Xu’s supporters chanted slogans and raised banners in his support.

Police pushed away the crowd and at least three protesters were taken away to a police van.

The government has waged a 10-month drive against Mr Xu’s New Citizens’ Movement, which advocates working within the system to press for change, including urging officials to disclose their assets.

The campaign against the movement exposes the ambivalence in Beijing’s bid to root out corruption, even as the authorities claim greater transparency.

Mr Xu (40) is charged with “gathering a crowd to disturb public order”, punishable by up to five years in prison.

His prosecution will almost certainly spark fresh criticism from Western governments over Beijing’s crackdown on dissent.

Speaking to reporters by telephone at the end of the trial, which, as is common in China, lasted a single day, Mr Xu’s lawyer Zhang Qingfang said prosecutors demanded a heavy punishment.

Mr Xu, he added, maintained his silence throughout.

“At the end, he wanted to express freedom, justice and love in his speech, but because this content was not allowed by the courthouse and the court eventually interrupted him, he didn’t say it,” Mr Zhang said.

Mr Zhang had earlier said both he and Mr Xu would maintain silence during the closed-door proceedings because they did not believe the court would grant a fair trial.

Mr Zhang said that he was frustrated that the court only allowed him to produce two witnesses.

Five witnesses that he had requested testify in court have been put under police guard and been prevented from moving around freely. One of them, he said, has been taken to a motel.

“Our maintaining silence does not mean we will not express our views. But we believe this court is not worth expressing our views,” Mr Zhang said.

China has detained at least 20 activists involved in pressing for asset disclosure, though not all are from the New Citizens’ Movement.

Six will stand trial in Beijing and the southern city of Guangzhou tomorrow and Friday.