Xu Zhiyong trial: Chinese activist and lawyer make ‘silent protest’ in court

Mr Xu is charged with 'gathering a crowd to disturb public order', punishable by up to five years in prison

Prominent Chinese rights advocate Xu Zhiyong has gone on trial in the country’s most high-profile dissident case in years, but his lawyer said he refused to offer any defence and called the court unjust.

Outside the courtroom, Mr Xu’s supporters chanted slogans and raised banners in his support. Police pushed away the crowd and at least three protesters were taken away to a police van.

The government has waged a 10-month drive against Mr Xu’s “New Citizens’ Movement”, which advocates working within the system to press for change, including urging officials to disclose their assets.

The campaign against the movement exposes the ambivalence in Beijing’s bid to root out corruption, even as the authorities claim to be promoting greater transparency.

Mr Xu, 40, is charged with “gathering a crowd to disturb public order”, punishable by up to five years in prison.

Speaking to reporters by telephone at the end of the trial, which, as is common in China, lasted a single day, Mr Xu’s lawyer Zhang Qingfang said prosecutors demanded a heavy punishment.

Mr Xu, he added, maintained his silence throughout. “At the end, he wanted to express freedom, justice and love in his speech, but because this content was not allowed by the courthouse and the court eventually interrupted him, he didn’t say it,” Mr Zhang said.

Mr Zhang had earlier said both he and Mr Xu would maintain silence during the closed-door proceedings because they did not believe the court would grant a fair trial.

Mr Zhang said that he was frustrated that the court only allowed him to produce two witnesses.

Five witnesses that he had requested testify in court have been put under police guard and been prevented from moving around freely. One of them, he said, has been taken to a motel.

“Our maintaining silence does not mean we will not express our views. But we believe this court is not worth expressing our views,” Mr Zhang said.

China has detained at least 20 activists involved in pressing for asset disclosure, though not all are from the New Citizens’ Movement.

Six will stand trial in Beijing and the southern city of Guangzhou on Thursday and Friday. Three went on trial in December and face more than 10 years in prison if convicted.

Mr Xu’s is China’s highest-profile dissident trial since 2009, when the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo was put on trial for subversion after he helped organise the “Charter 08” petition urging the overthrow of one-party rule. Liu was jailed for 11 years.

Despite the increased security presence near the courthouse, close to two dozen Xu supporters turned up at the start of the trial, joining many reporters and photographers. But police pushed them away and closed off the road outside the courthouse, saying the crowd did not have permission to gather. Three supporters were hauled away.

Hu Jia, a prominent dissident, said state security officers told him and five other activists not to leave their homes.

About 10 to 15 supporters unfurled a banner that read: “Citizens request officials to publicly disclose assets.”

“Down with corrupt officials”, “Xu Zhiyong is not guilty” and “Free Xu Zhiyong,” they chanted.

A known legal scholar, Mr Xu also campaigned on behalf of inmates on death row and families affected by tainted baby milk formula in 2009.

Diplomats  were not allowed to enter the court.