Jailing of activist Xu Zhiyong 'breaks reform promise'

Jailing of activist Xu Zhiyong seen as step backwards by legal observers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 January, 2014, 9:55am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 January, 2014, 12:02pm

Video: Xu Zhiyong's lawyer detained by police

A Beijing court's sentencing of activist Xu Zhiyong to four years in jail yesterday undermined President Xi Jinping's pledge to fight corruption and reform the justice system, legal experts and rights groups said.

Xu, a law lecturer whose New Citizen movement sought the disclosure of officials' assets, was convicted of "assembling a crowd to disrupt order in a public place" after a one-day trial last week in which witnesses and co-defendants were barred from testifying.

"Everything in this trial has violated what the leader of China and the court have been preaching in the last year," said New York University law professor Jerome Cohen, one of the world's foremost authorities on Chinese law. "This case, with all the procedural violations and the lack of transparency, has been a repudiation of the party line."

Cohen called the trial - the first of seven against New Citizen activists - "a farce and a huge disappointment".

Xu denounced the verdict of Beijing's No 1 Intermediate People's Court, said his lawyer Zhang Qingfang. "The court today has completely destroyed the last bit of dignity of China's rule of law," Xu said in a brief statement, according to Zhang, who was himself taken away by police after the hearing.

Xu, 40, remained calm as the verdict was read, Zhang said. The activist's wife, who gave birth to a girl two weeks ago, was absent from the hearing, although his sister attended. Zhang said Xu would appeal against the verdict.

The result was expected to influence the trials of other New Citizen activists who staged street protests calling on Communist Party officials to disclose their personal assets. Legal experts and rights groups said the sentence showed the government's resolve to muzzle critics and stamp out organised street protests, even if their demands appeared consistent with Xi's goals of fighting corruption and reforming the justice system.

Hours after the verdict, veteran activist Hu Jia - a recipient of the European Parliament's Sakharov human rights prize - was detained by Beijing police on a charge of "provoking and stirring trouble", he said before being taken away. "Never mind, I've been mentally prepared for this."

Nicholas Bequelin, a senior Hong Kong-based researcher at Human Rights Watch, said Xu's case undermined the government's already modest legal-reform agenda.

"It was a show trial and his verdict is a political one that shows the law remains a tool for the government to punish critics," Bequelin said.

In November, the Supreme People's Court ordered judges to take steps to reduce miscarriages of justice, including ensuring trials are open to the public and the defence has the right to cross-examine witnesses.

In protest at the court's handling of Xu's trial, Xu and his lawyer refused to offer a defence in court. Xu was indicted for "organising and masterminding" at least five protests last year to demand that government officials disclose their assets, and at least two others over education rights for migrant children in Beijing.

But activists who have participated in those protests say he was not a "ringleader" and was often not informed of their actions.

Teng Biao, a legal scholar who has worked with Xu, said the crackdown on dissent was "unlikely to slow" in the near future, as officials would not accept greater transparency and its threat to their vested interests.

Before he was taken away, Hu said the authorities prosecuted the New Citizen activists because they were deeply nervous about street protests turning into larger unrest, even though their demands are moderate and they seek only for rights within the current legal framework.

Xu, who made a statement to the court that spelled out his ideals of "liberty, justice and love" at his trial, accused the authorities of harbouring "deep fears" of "the looming free society".

Jen Psaki, a spokeswoman for the US State Department, said in a statement that the United States was “deeply disappointed” by the jailing of Xu and urged China to free him and other political prisoners.