Show trial begins of China's top dissident

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THE LEADING Chinese dissident still active on the mainland was scheduled for trial this morning in the heavily guarded Peking Number 1 Intermediate People's Court, one day after a labour activist who had served three years in a labour camp was unexpectedly par-oled and exiled.

Human rights activists branded the timing of Liu Nianchun's release as an attempt by Peking to deflect international criticism from its biggest crackdown in three years.

As 50-year-old Mr Liu and his family were bundled on to a NorthWest Airlines flight to the United States yesterday morning, the latest victim of the suppression, Xu Wenli, was preparing for today's court appearance. Notice of the trial was given to Mr Xu's family only on Friday, leaving no time for the court-appointed lawyer to organise his defence.

This year, 55-year-old Mr Xu has become the elder mentor and focus for a disparate group of activists across China, many of whom have been involved in trying to register an independent China Democracy Party. Like two other activists whose brief trials were held last week, Mr Xu will plead not guilty to charges of inciting subversion, but is bound to be convicted. The maximum penalty for the offence is life imprisonment, although no sentences have yet been announced.

In the late Seventies, Mr Xu was a Democracy Wall activist and has already spent 12 years in prison, mostly in solitary confinement.

As he became more outspoken over the course of this year, Mr Xu was taken in for questioning many times but, until his arrest on 30 November, had been released within hours or days.

In particular, Tony Blair was embarrassed during his October visit to the mainland when Mr Xu was detained briefly for questioning, and British aides hurriedly raised the matter with their Chinese hosts.

The current crackdown on dissidents has left European Union governments on the defensive about their optimistic claims earlier this year that "constructive engagement" with China was helping to secure significant improvements in human rights.

The EU this spring controversially abandoned its annual attempt to censure China at the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva.

The parole on medical grounds and exile of Mr Liu follows similar treatment since late 1997 for two other high- profile dissidents, Wang Dan and Wei Jingsheng. China now seems willing to release leading dissidents only if they immediately go into exile.

Mr Liu was arrested in 1995, when Peking clamped down on labour activists. The following year, his wife learnt he had been sentenced without trial to three years' "re-education through labour" in north-east China. That was subsequently extended by a year. As Mr Liu's health deteriorated, his wife, Chu Hailan, campaigned to bring his case to the attention of the outside world.

Mr Xu's wife, He Xintong, has been similarly fearless, also putting herself at risk.