By Sui-Lee Wee
BEIJING, Dec 4 (Reuters) - Six Chinese lawyers defending three activists who demanded officials disclose their wealth were assaulted, along with their clients' relatives, by hundreds of men outside a courthouse in southern China on Wednesday, one of the lawyers said.
The trial of Liu Ping, Li Sihua and Wei Zhongping is being closely watched by China's human rights community because it is the first prosecution of anti-graft activists and comes amid what rights groups have described as the first major crackdown against activists by the new government of President Xi Jinping.
Despite an official drive against corruption, China has detained at least 16 activists in recent months who were involved in a campaign pushing for officials to disclose their wealth.
As the lawyers waited outside the court in southern China for authorities to answer their request for an open trial, about 200 to 300 men surrounded and shoved them, hurling insults like: "Traitor lawyers, scum of the Chinese nation", according to prominent human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang.
Pu said he believed these were government-appointed thugs.
"They were very familiar with the presence of the police and were organised," Pu said. "I think the (officials) in Jiangxi and Xinyu have gone overboard."
The trial was held in Xinyu, in the poor, landlocked southern province of Jiangxi. The three were detained in April in Xinyu, and accused of illegal assembly, gathering a crowd to disturb order in a public place and "using an evil cult to undermine the law".
They face more than 10 years in prison if convicted of the three charges.
Yang Jinzhu, a lawyer representing one of the accused, resigned in protest against the court's refusal to grant an open trial, said Pu.
The trial adjourned on Tuesday because the defence lawyers said it was riddled with procedural problems, according to Zhou Ze, a lawyer representing one of the accused.
In October, the trial was adjourned after its first day after the activists were forced to sack their lawyers because the court had refused to allow a proper defence.
Officials in Xinyu could not be reached for comment.
The three are involved in the New Citizens Movement, which advocates working within the system to press for change. Its founder, the prominent activist Xu Zhiyong, was arrested in August.
Encouraged by Xi's calls for more transparency, the activists took photographs of themselves holding banners and placards that said: "Strongly urge officials to disclose their assets" and "Xi Jinping, immediately end dictatorship".
The trial underscores the limits of an anti-corruption push by the government and has become a test case for the new leadership's tolerance of the right of free speech.
The three activists' lawyers said their clients' actions - eating a meal and holding up banners - did not constitute "illegal assembly". (Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Nick Macfie)