Six activists from a prominent social movement that has called on officials to disclose their assets will stand trial next week in what rights advocates fear is a concerted effort to crush their campaign.
Legal scholar and rights advocate, Xu Zhiyong, who launched the New Citizen movement in 2012 to push for social equality and the rule of law, will face trial on Wednesday on the charge of "assembling a crowd to disrupt order in a public place", his lawyer said.
Xu planned to remain silent in court to protest procedural flaws that he believed would result in an unfair outcome, he said.
The trial of five supporters of his movement, who played key roles in planning and participating in the street campaigns last year that agitated for transparency over officials' assets, will take place Thursday and Friday, lawyers Zhang Xuezhong and Liang Xiaojun said yesterday. They are all facing the same charge as Xu.
Zhao Changqing's trial will take place on Thursday in Beijing's Haidian district court, while the trials of Ding Jiaxi , Li Wei , Zhang Baochang and Yuan Dong will take place on Friday at the same court, they said.
Zhang, Zhao's lawyer, said he would raise opposition to the fact that the activists' cases are to be heard separately, making it harder for the them to defend their cases.
"They have never given fair treatment in the cases of New Citizen movement … this is political oppression," said Zhang.
On Friday, Xu's lawyer Zhang Qingfang said judges at a pre-trial meeting had denied Xu's request that witnesses and the co-defendants named in his case, including those five activists, be allowed to testify in court. Xu will be tried at the Beijing No1 Intermediate People's Court.
Police accuse Xu of masterminding at least five protests last year to demand that officials disclose their assets.
Zhang Xuezhong said the trials of at least six activists all in the week ahead of the Lunar New Year was deliberately planned to lessen the impact of the case as most of their supporters would be busy travelling.
He said the demand for transparency over officials has made the authorities nervous about it turning into a larger, nationwide movement which will pose a threat to their rule.
In recent months, the government has escalated the crackdown on freedom of expression through targeting activists and online opinion formers, and holding people criminally liable for spreading false information on the internet.
Maya Wang, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, said the government is trying to reassert control over public opinion. "It is making clear that organised dissent and going on the streets will not be tolerated," she said.
According to Human Rights Watch, at least 18 participants in the New Citizen movement were arrested last year, although several were released on bail.