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China tries second anti-graft activist in two days

Source: Reuters - Thu, 23 Jan 2014 07:27 GMT
Author: Reuters
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(Changes adjournment from Wednesday to Thursday in second paragraph)

By Sui-Lee Wee

BEIJING, Jan 23 (Reuters) - A veteran Chinese dissident who agitated for officials to disclose their assets argued his innocence on Thursday in the second trial of its kind in two days, underscoring the government's resolve to crush any challenge to its rule.

The trial of Zhao Changqing was adjourned earlier on Thursday after he dismissed his two lawyers, a decision that would help him delay his case, one of his lawyers, Zhang Xuezhong, told Reuters by telephone.

China's government has waged a 10-month drive against the "New Citizens' Movement", of which Zhao was a member. The movement advocates working within the system to press for change, including urging officials to disclose their assets.

The hearings against members of the New Citizens' Movement are China's highest-profile political trials in years. Prominent rights advocate Xu Zhiyong went on trial on Wednesday but his lawyer said he refused to offer any defence and called the court unjust.

Zhao initiated dinner gatherings in Beijing, where citizens discussed the campaign to urge officials to disclose their assets. He is charged with "gathering a crowd to disturb public order", punishable by up to five years in prison.

Zhang said Zhao told a Beijing courtroom that he was not guilty of any crime.

"He said that all his actions, including promoting the asset disclosure of officials, promoting equal access to education in China and pursuing the realisation of constitutional democracy is completely legitimate and legal and in keeping with the basic principles of modern civilisation," Zhang said.

"He felt that the court was being totally unjust and that their allegations were unfair."

Zhao would be given 15 days to select two new lawyers. "Only by this way, he can avoid a hasty court trial that would be wrapped up before the Chinese New Year," Zhang said.

"If you delay the time a little, there's always the opportunity that there might be a change."

The campaign against the movement exposes the ambivalence in Beijing's bid to root out pervasive corruption, even as President Xi Jinping leads a new campaign to tackle graft.

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

U.S. CONCERNED

Diplomats said they were shut out of Zhao's trial, which was guarded by heavy security. Police hauled a dozen petitioners away from the courthouse and barred foreign reporters from getting close.

"As you can see by our continued presence today, the United States remains deeply concerned that Chinese authorities are prosecuting individuals as retribution for their peaceful expression of views," said Daniel Delk, second secretary for the political section at the U.S. embassy.

Delk urged Chinese authorities "to release all political prisoners involved in these cases immediately".

The Global Times, a popular tabloid owned by Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily, said China should not be "overly sensitive" about the West giving special attention and support to China's dissidents.

"But the Chinese people will never allow the attitudes of external forces to guide the country's attitude in its internal affairs," it said in a commentary.

Another activist, Hou Xin, will stand trial in a Beijing court later on Thursday. Hou unfurled a banner in Beijing last year calling on officials to disclose their assets.

A Beijing court said Wang Gongquan, a close friend of Xu's and a venture capitalist who was arrested last October, had confessed to "planning and inciting a mob to disturb public order" together with Xu, according to the microblog account of the Beijing No.1 Intermediate Court.

Zhang Qingfang, Xu's lawyer, disputed the posting, saying it was a "complete distortion of facts".

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

Zhao has been jailed three times for his pro-democracy activities, including a three-month sentence for his involvement in the June 4, 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square. (Additional reporting by Maxim Duncan and Michael Martina; Editing by Paul Tait)

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