China jails rights activist Xu Zhiyong for four years

Reuters, BEIJING

Mon, Jan 27, 2014 - Page 1

A Chinese court yesterday sentenced one of the country’s most prominent rights advocates to four years in prison after he campaigned for the rights of children from rural areas to be educated in cities and for officials to disclose their assets.

Xu Zhiyong’s (許志永) jailing is a stark warning to activists that the Chinese Communist Party will crush any challenge to its rule, especially from those who seek to organize campaigns. It also diminishes hopes for meaningful political change, even as Beijing pledges to embark on economic reforms.

Separately, one of China’s most prominent dissidents, Hu Jia (胡佳), who frequently accuses authorities of infringing civil liberties, said police had summoned him on a charge of “suspicion of causing a disturbance.”

The Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court found Xu guilty of “gathering a crowd to disturb public order,” the court said on its official microblog.

The rights activist was tried on Wednesday last week.

Xu’s lawyer, Zhang Qingfang (張慶方), said he would meet his client within the next two days to determine whether to lodge an appeal.

“He said [in court] that the last remaining dignity of the Chinese legal system has been destroyed,” Zhang told reporters. “It’s not that we can’t bear this result, but that, fundamentally, the guilty conviction is illegal, is unreasonable and unfair.”

There were chaotic scenes outside the court as police harassed foreign reporters, while Zhang was briefly taken away by police after the hearing. He said police were still tailing him after he was released.

The government has waged a 10-month drive against Xu’s “New Citizens’ Movement,” which advocates working within the system to press for change. Hundreds of citizens have participated in activities related to the movement, rights activists say.

“This is a shameful, but sadly predictable, verdict. The Chinese authorities have once again opted for the rule of fear over the rule of law,” Amnesty International East Asia Research director Roseann Rife said in a statement. “The persecution of those associated with the New Citizens Movement demonstrates how fearful the Chinese leadership are of public calls for change.”

Hu said he was prepared to face detention.

“It’s because I’ve participated in many street protests,” Hu told reporters by telephone as police waited outside his door to take him away. “I’ve asked for officials to publicly disclose their assets and have expressed solidarity with those who’ve been arrested. I’ve appealed to many people to watch and promote these street protests.”

Hu was jailed in 2008 for 3.5 years on subversion charges for criticizing human rights restrictions. Some supporters saw him as a potential recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize before it went to another jailed Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波), in 2010.

China has detained at least 20 activists involved in pressing for asset disclosure by officials, although not all are from the New Citizens’ Movement. Three activists went on trial last month and face more than 10 years in prison if convicted, two stood trial on Thursday last week and four others will be tried today.

“Instead of ‘putting power’ within a ‘cage of regulations,’ as [Chinese President] Xi Jinping (習近平) has promised, the new leadership appears to be more interested in consolidating power,” Human Rights Watch Asia director Brad Adams said. “Staging show trials of critics is wholly at odds with Xi’s self-proclaimed reformist agenda.”

Xu’s verdict is also a rebuff to Western governments who have expressed concern about his case.

“We are concerned that today’s conviction is retribution for Xu’s public campaign to expose official corruption and for the peaceful expression of his views,” said Daniel Delk, second secretary of the political section at the US embassy.

Xu pushed for officials to disclose their assets and campaigned for the rights of children from rural areas to be educated in cities.

During his trial, the court rejected the 68 witnesses the defense had applied to testify. It also barred diplomats from attending.