UK & World News

  • 26 January 2014, 12:54

China Jails Lawyer Xu Zhiyong For Four Years

A prominent Chinese lawyer and academic has been sentenced to four years in jail after a one day trial in Beijing.

Xu Zhiyong, 40, a lawyer and a lecturer at the Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications, was convicted of "gathering crowds to disrupt public order".

As a founding member of the New Citizens Movement, Mr Xu had repeatedly called for transparency within the Chinese government and an end to corrupt practices.

The movement called for the Chinese leaders to live up to their own constitution and attracted a following around China large enough to raise concerns among China's Communist leadership.

Mr Xu refused to defend himself at his trial on Wednesday because, according to his lawyer, he refused to recognise the court.

During the sentencing, Mr Xu managed to say a few words before being silenced.

"The last bit of dignity of Chinese justice has been completely destroyed by you," he said, according to his lawyer.

Roseann Rife, East Asia Research Director at Amnesty International, and Brad Adams, Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, both criticised the verdict.

Ms Rife said: "This is a shameful but sadly predictable verdict. The Chinese authorities have once again opted for the rule of fear over the rule of law.

"At best the injustice of prosecuting Xu Zhiyong is hypocrisy of the highest order. On the surface his calls to expose corruption coincide with President Xi Jinping's own much heralded clampdown."

Mr Adams said: "The harsh sentence for a moderate critic who reflected widespread public concern about corruption shows just how little tolerance there is towards dissent in China today.

"Xi Jinping has made fighting corruption the linchpin of his presidency, but when an average citizen takes up the same cause, he is sent to prison. This hypocrisy makes a mockery of the president's anti-corruption campaign."

But the message sent from the courtroom today runs far deeper: In Xi Jinping's China, the Communist Party maintains a monopoly on the political process and anyone that speaks out will be severely dealt with.

At the end of the trial on Wednesday, Mr Xu read about 10 minutes of a lengthy closing statement before the judge stopped him claiming it was "irrelevant".

"You have accused me of disrupting public order for my efforts to push for rights to equal access to education, to allow children of migrant workers to sit for university entrance examinations where they reside, and for my calls that officials publicly declare their assets," Mr Xu's statement reads.

"While on the face of it, this appears to be an issue of the boundary between a citizen's right to free speech and public order, what this is, in fact, is the issue of whether or not you recognise a citizen's constitutional rights."

"If the country's rulers have any intention to take citizens' constitutional rights seriously, then of course we are innocent," he wrote. 

"The day will come when the 1.3 billion Chinese will stand up from their submissive state and grow to be proud and responsible citizens. China will become a country that enjoys a civilised political system and a happy society in which freedom, justice, and love prevail."

At Wednesday's trial, a small group of his supporters briefly unveiled a banner supporting him. They were quickly detained and taken away.

A group of foreign diplomats, including senior embassy staff from the American and British Embassies tried to observe the trial. They were refused access and were instead subjected to harassment outside court.

The American Embassy's First Secretary was pushed away as he tried to speak to journalists including Sky News.

Sky News, the BBC and CNN were all physically prevented from filming in the public space outside the court, prompting a statement from the American Ambassador.

"The United States Government calls on Chinese authorities to release Xu and other political prisoners immediately, to cease any restrictions on their freedom of movement, and to guarantee them the protections and freedoms to which they are entitled under China's international human rights commitments." Ambassador Gary Locke said.

"I am deeply concerned that police mistreated foreign journalists ... I urge Chinese authorities to take measures to ensure that foreign reporters working in China are able to carry out their journalistic responsibilities in accordance with internationally recognised conventions." he said.

The Chinese government has remained largely silent about the trial but an editorial in the state-run Global Times newspaper said that Mr Xu's movement and his "disruption of public order" were separate issues.

"It's a misleading thought to forcefully connect Xu's Movement and his trial as cause and effect. Xu's advocacies are a matter of politics and public opinion, not the business of the court. But the court will function if public order is disrupted." it read.

Mr Xu, who was arrested in July last year, intends to appeal according to his lawyer.

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