Beijing: China has sentenced prominent human rights advocate Xu Zhiyong to four years in jail in the country's most high-profile prosecution of an activist in years.
A Beijing court on Sunday found him guilty of "gathering crowds to disrupt the public order", in a case the United States government and human rights groups have criticised as being politically-motivated and retribution against Mr Xu for his public campaign to expose government corruption.
The verdict came just hours after authorities accused one of China’s most prominent Uighur scholars, Ilham Tohti, of “separatism and inciting ethnic hatred”, after detaining him on January 15.
In the clearest indication that Mr Tohti will likely face a lengthy spell in jail, state security authorities said he was inciting violence and recruiting people to join a separatist movement for an independent East Turkestan nation, in a statement issued on Saturday night. Mr Tohti has been a vocal advocate for Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim ethnic minority from China’s far-western Xinjiang province.
In chaotic scenes after Mr Xu's verdict was delivered, police and security agents jostled with reporters as they bundled the activist's lawyer, Zhang Qingfang, into a police van. He was driven away in a bid to prevent him from speaking to the media, before being released shortly afterward, the lawyer said.
Mr Zhang said the flawed legal process had been no more than a piece of theatre, with the defence team unable to call witnesses, and the verdict - delivered four days after the one-day trial on Wednesday - pre-determined by the party-controlled judiciary.
“You have destroyed the last shred of dignity of China’s legal system,” Mr Xu told the court after the judge delivered the verdict, according to Mr Zhang.
Mr Zhang said the decision was “deeply unjust” and that Mr Xu would likely appeal, even though it would be unlikely to alter the outcome.
Mr Xu’s case is widely considered the most high-profile prosecution of a rights advocate since Liu Xiaobo – the pro-democracy activist found guilty of subversion in 2009, and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the next year.
Mr Xu, a softly-spoken 40-year-old legal scholar, is the central figure of the New Citizens Movement, a loose collective that has campaigned for equal rights to education and, more controversially, for Communist Party officials to publicly disclose their assets.
The trial of six other members of the movement on similar charges also began this week.
The US government said it was “deeply disappointed” by the conviction and called for his release.
“We are concerned that Mr Xu’s prosecution is retribution for his public campaign to expose corruption and for the peaceful expression of his views,” said a statement from the State Department.
A Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson said the Australian government was “still studying the court’s decision”. Australian embassy representatives were part of a delegation of foreign diplomats who requested but were denied permission to attend Mr Xu’s trial.
The verdict comes amid what many analysts and rights groups consider a broad-ranging assault on political dissent and grassroots activism by the new leadership under Xi Jinping, who assumed the country’s presidency in November 2012.
“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,” said Asia director of Human Rights Watch, Brad Adams. “Xi Jinping has made fighting corruption the lynchpin of his presidency, but when an average citizen takes up the same cause, he is sent to prison.”
Although Mr Xu and Mr Tohti's cases are not directly linked, they highlight the increasing unease in Beijing over dissent in China. They are set against a background of increasingly bloody confrontations between Uighurs and authorities over the past year, prompting heavier security measures in the resource-rich and strategically important Xinjiang province.
On Friday, 12 people were killed near Xinjiang’s border with Kygrystan in what officials said was a clash involving explosive devices. Six died in the explosions while police shot and killed six others, according to brief accounts relayed in state-run news outlets.
Mr Tohti had been frequently harassed by authorities since a particularly violent outbreak of ethnic violence in Urumqi, Xinjiang province, in 2009 claimed nearly 200 lives.
Security agents tailing him rammed his car and threatened to kill his family in November, shortly after a fiery car attack in Tiananmen Square by a Uighur man which killed two pedestrians.
“Ilham Tohti exploited his status as a teacher to recruit, entice and coerce people to form gangs, and to collude with ‘East Turkestan’ leaders in planning, organising and assigning people to go abroad to join in separatist activities,” the statement from the Urumqi Bureau of State Security said.