BEIJING (Reuters) - The trial of two Chinese activists accused of disturbing public order after urging officials to reveal their assets began on Tuesday, the latest in a series of cases brought against anti-graft campaigners in China despite criticism from the West.
The trials of members of the “New Citizens’ Movement” have sparked criticism from the United States, Europe and rights groups as evidence of the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s determination to crush any dissent to its rule.
The government has waged a year-long drive against the movement, founded by Xu Zhiyong, one of China’s most prominent rights activists, who was jailed in January for four years.
The two activists put on trial on Tuesday -- Ding Jiaxi and Li Wei -- advocated working within the system to press for change, including urging officials to publish details of assets.
They were charged with “gathering a crowd to disturb public order”, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
The trials in Beijing were the second for the activists.
The first trial in January was aborted after the defendants dismissed their lawyers and one of the lawyers voluntarily withdrew his defense, because of improprieties in the judicial proceedings.
Sui Muqing, a lawyer representing Ding, said a conviction for his client is nearly inevitable, even though the activists’ behavior and actions were legitimate.
“This so-called charge of ‘disturbing public order’ is not valid. (But) because this is a political persecution, a conviction for him is quite normal,” Sui told Reuters by telephone.
Police blocked Reuters reporters from approaching the courthouse and harassed Sui after he was interviewed.
They also barred a crowd of diplomats from entering the courtroom, telling them that the trial was not open to the public, as a group of supporters gathered outside the courthouse.
“The way they (the government) have handled this is certainly not justifiable,” said Qi Yueying, a Beijing activist who was detained last April for eight months for participating in the same demonstrations as Ding.
“Simply asking officials to disclose their assets is a perfectly legitimate and fair thing to do. When we took to the streets, we did not gather and did not do things that disturbed society.”
Police accuse the activists of planning, organizing, and carrying out nearly 30 instances of “street political activities”, from displaying banners to making speeches urging declaration of assets, according to a copy of Li’s arrest notice.
Ding, a lawyer based in Beijing, was in charge of “organizing and overall coordination” of the movement, while Li, who is unemployed, was responsible for collecting information and organizing activists, the notice said.
Li’s lawyer, Cao Weiping, declined to comment, saying he was not allowed to accept interviews.
While President Xi Jinping has made battling corruption a priority, authorities have shown no sign of agreeing to demands for such disclosures by all officials and at least 20 anti-graft activists have been detained.
Wary of any organized challenge to the party’s rule, Xi’s administration has ratcheted up pressure on dissent. It has clamped down on critics on the Internet and tightened curbs on journalists.
One more activist, Zhao Changqing, will stand trial on Thursday. Xu, the founder of New Citizens’ Movement, has appealed against his conviction, and decision is expected on Friday.
Additional reporting by Maxim Duncan; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore