A Guangzhou-based rights activist has been formally charged over a street protest for media freedom in China, according to his lawyer.
Liu Yuandong has been indicted on charges of “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order” by prosecutors in Guangzhou in addition to previous charges, his lawyer Liu Zhengqing said. He said he was informed of the charges on Monday.
Liu Yuandong will face court over participating in street protests in January in the capital of Guangdong province, according to the indictment.
Hundreds of people had rallied outside the offices of the leading newspaper Southern Weekly demanding respect for media freedom after censors replaced the newspaper’s New Year editorial. About 100 editors and reporters with the newspaper declared a strike in protest. Dozens of other activists were detained at the time.
Liu, 35, had “attracted a large crowd of onlookers by holding banners and making speeches”, the indictment read. It said Liu did so on three consecutive days in January.
Teng Biao, a mainland legal scholar, said Liu was an important democracy activist in southern China. “His ideas and actions constituted a threat for the authorities,” said Teng, “but neither what he did nor what he said was illegal.”
Liu was initially detained on March 11 on charges of misstating the registered capital of a company in 2011. Supporters shared photos online of them holding banners calling for his release. He was formally arrested in April and police passed the case to prosecutors in June. Only on November 27 were the additional charges related to the January protest brought forward.
Another person who remains detained over the incident is the veteran legal activist Yang Maodong. Also known as Guo Feixiong, he was detained in Guangzhou in August. He told family members that police consider him the mastermind behind the Southern Weekly protests. He has not been indicted yet.
Liu Yuandong had participated in a series of other street protests in Guangzhou over the last few years, including a protest in support of the Arab Spring last year and one against North Korea’s nuclear test in February.
In early December, Liu Ping, Wei Zhongping and Li Sihua became the first members of the New Citizen Movement to stand trial on illegal assembly charges in Jiangxi province. Prosecutors in Beijing formally indicted Xu Zhiyong, the initiator of the movement which calls on officials to declare their assets and for the respect of rights guaranteed in the constitution, on such charges last week.
Maya Wang, a Hong Kong-based researcher with Human Rights Watch, said several prominent rights advocates, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, have in the past faced trial around Christmas.
"The third plenum has just finished. The attention has been shifted to deal with this group of detained activists," she said. "They probably wanted to deal with these activists before the end of the year."
Lawyer Liu said his defendant could face up to 10 years in prison.