China yesterday put on trial three activists from a group that has used protest banners and dinner parties to urge citizens to embrace their constitutional rights, underscoring the Chinese Communist Party’s intolerance of any semblance of organized political challenge.
The trial of grassroots rights advocates Liu Ping (劉萍), Wei Zhongping (魏忠平) and Li Sihua (李思華) at a district court in Xinyu city in Jiangxi Province was held under tight security.
It adjourned with an unexpected development: After defense lawyers lost a gambit to declare the judges unfit, the judges prevented the lawyers from speaking further and the activists declared they wanted to hire new attorneys. The court did not say when the proceedings would resume.
Police used crowd-control barriers to keep the public — and diplomats from the US, the EU and Canada — about a few hundred meters away from the courthouse.
“The United States urges the Chinese government to respect the internationally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedoms of expression and assembly,” said Daniel Delk, the US embassy’s political officer.
The three activists are part of the New Citizens Movement, a loose network of campaigners who have lobbied for officials to declare their assets to help curb widespread corruption. Participants have held small, peaceful demonstrations, usually involving a handful of people holding banners, making speeches or collecting signatures.
About two dozen members of the group have either been arrested or briefly detained since March, according to other members who have been keeping track. The three campaigners in Xinyu are the first among them to be tried and other activists say authorities will use it to gauge their support.
“They want to know how many people care enough about the case to travel to a small city,” veteran rights activist Hu Jia (胡佳) said. “Will diplomats try to attend trial? Will the foreign media be there?”
The three activists are accused of “illegal assembly” — a charge their lawyer says stems from a photograph of them holding signs calling for the release of other protesters.
Liu and Wei face an additional public order charge and of “using an evil cult to undermine law enforcement” related to an online post Liu wrote last year about a trial of Falun Gong petitioners.
Defense lawyers called the charges absurd and argued that the judges, who allowed authorities to detain the trio longer than they were legally allowed to, were unfit to rule in the case, said Zhang Xuezhong (張雪忠), one of the attorneys.
However, the judges rejected that and appeared to retaliate against the lawyers by preventing them from speaking any further, Zhang said. This made the defendants fear that they would get virtually no hearing for their defense arguments with the current lawyers, so they declared they wanted new ones, he said.
“It’s the most rational thing to do to best protect their legal rights,” he said after the trial was adjourned to an as-yet unannounced date.
Meanwhile, authorities in Shanghai have denied that a petitioner was beaten to death by local police over a property dispute.
The response came after dozens protested in the heart of the city at the weekend to demand compensation for being evicted from their homes and over the death of Shen Yong, who was locked in a dispute with the government over the demolition of his house.