Trial of three activists 'will determine tolerance of new leadership'
Prosecution of trio, all members of the New Citizens' movement, will lay down template for how dissidents are treated, rights group says
How authorities handle the fate of three activists who pushed for officials to disclose their assets will show how tolerant the new leadership will be of dissent, lawyers and a rights group say.
The prosecution of the Jiangxi trio is part of a wider crackdown on activists and government critics, which has seen scores detained or arrested this year, they say.
Liu Ping, Wei Zhongping and Li Sihua were detained in late April after they held up banners in Liu's residential compound to press for the release of other activists arrested for their own calls for officials to disclose assets.
They were initially charged with "inciting subversion of state power" but that was changed to "illegal assembly". Liu and Wei were in September additionally charged with "gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place" and "using an evil cult to undermine law enforcement".
Their trial will be the first of at least 17 activists involved in the New Citizens' civil rights movement who have been arrested since April, Human Rights Watch says. "The way it proceeds and how the public responds to it will influence how other detained activists will be treated," said Maya Wang, a researcher with the group's Asia division.
The trial was previously expected to take place either in the past week or this week, but the date is now uncertain. Their lawyers are suing the judges for illegally extending their detention without due process after a pre-trial meeting last Monday. The lawyers issued a statement demanding that their clients be released as the trial had not taken place within the required three months since the case was filed with the court.
Rights lawyers say authorities are increasingly resorting to public order charges to prosecute rights activists. Many of the other detained activists have been similarly charged with crimes such as "gathering crowds to disturb public order" and "creating disturbances".
"As soon as this case proceeds, we'll see more [activists] put on trial," said rights lawyer Li Fangping, who suspected there was a co-ordinated effort to rein in voices of dissent.
Li said the authorities were using the trio's case to "test the waters" of public reaction.
Liu, Wei and Li's actions stood out in Jiangxi. All three ran for seats in their local People's Congress despite an unwritten rule that only candidates backed by the Communist Party can stand.
They also participated in anti-corruption campaigns and demanded the central government ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which it signed in 1998. Liu had also been trying to raise awareness of civil rights among ordinary citizens while giving speeches across the country.
Her lawyer, Zhang Xuezhong, said he believed the authorities had targeted her because "her advocacy of citizens' rights posed a threat to the existing political order".
Li's lawyer, Pang Kun, also believed the trio's actions "have probably broken through [the authorities'] bottom line."
Zhang has argued the demonstration in Liu's compound did not constitute illegal assembly as the authorities had not asked them to stop at the time. They only took action after a picture of the gathering was posted on the internet.
He said the two additional charges against Liu and Wei added in September were also unreasonable. The charge of disrupting public order stems from their distribution of leaflets in front of a supermarket while they were running for the local People's Congress in 2011.
The second "cult" charge refers to the calls they made on QQ, a messaging tool, to support a Falun Gong practitioner on trial.
Human Rights Watch said the wave of arrests might be related to a June notice from the Supreme People's Procuratorate mandating that prosecutors target crimes that "endanger national security".
Prosecutors should "resolutely combat crimes such as illegal assemblies, the gathering of crowds to disturb social and public order, and others that aim to subvert state power", it said.
Wang said the crackdown on freedom of expression targeted not only activists but also journalists and internet opinion leaders, and was accompanied by a tightening of ideology at universities and research institutes.
"It is worrying that this is happening at the beginning of Xi Jinping's leadership, and might indicate how the leadership sees peaceful activism."