Xu Zhiyong, the founder of a social initiative that urged mainland officials to disclose their assets, went on trial in Beijing yesterday in the first of a series of cases apparently aimed at crushing the movement.
Meanwhile, Wang Gongquan, a businessman backing Xu, was released on bail after he confessed he and Xu had "organised and incited criminal activities to assemble a crowd to disrupt order in a public place", according to a microblog post by Beijing No1 Intermediate Court, where Xu's case was being heard.
Xu, 40 - a lecturer who founded the New Citizens movement in 2012 to push for social equality and rule of law - refused to offer any defence because the court had barred witnesses and co-defendants from testifying.
But his lawyer, Zhang Qingfang, said Xu made a statement to the court that spelled out his ideals of "liberty, justice and love". He was, however, interrupted by court officials after 10 minutes when he questioned why China could not follow other countries in obliging officials to declare the assets.
Zhang confirmed the authenticity of the statement intended to be read out by Xu in court, which has been posted online. Xu's full statement questioned whether the authorities had ever taken citizens' constitutional rights seriously and said they had "deep fears" of public trials and "the looming free society".
Xu's statement insisted he and other activists were not guilty because they were only pushing for democracy and the rule of law, but he was willing to pay a price for his ideals.
No verdict was delivered but legal experts said Xu and six other activists in the movement who faced trial today and next week were almost certain to be convicted for their alleged crime of "assembling a crowd to disrupt order in a public place".
Video: Supporters protest against China's Xu Zhiyong's trial
Analysts said the prosecution of New Citizen movement members reflected the government's intensified effort to quash independent social movements.
Police accused Xu of "organising and masterminding" at least five protests last year to demand that government officials disclose their assets, and at least two others to demand equality of education rights for migrant children in Beijing. Xu's supporters said he was not a "ringleader".
There was a heavy police presence around the court as about two dozen of Xu's supporters turned up. They unfurled a banner that read: "Citizens demand officials disclose their assets."
"We want Xu Zhiyong released," they chanted.
Two petitioners from Shanghai said they were detained as soon as they stepped outside the metro station near the court.
"Xu is an upright person and I wanted to support him," said one of them, Wu Yufen.