BEIJING — In a further sign that China shows no signs of loosening up on political dissent, a Beijing court Sunday sentenced one of the country’s most prominent human rights activists to four years in prison.
Xu Zhiyong, a lawyer and leader of China’s New Citizens movement, was convicted in Beijing Intermediate People’s Court 1 of “creating a public disturbance” in connection with a peaceful rally last year that sought better education access for children of migrant workers.
Human rights advocates say the prosecution had nothing to do with that public protest but was aimed at muzzling a budding political reform movement that had pressed for public disclosure of the wealth of Chinese Communist Party officials, a sensitive issue among the China’s ruling elite.
“This is a shameful but sadly predictable verdict,” Roseann Rife, Amnesty International's East Asia research director, said in a statement. “The Chinese authorities have once again opted for the rule of fear over the rule of law.”
The U.S. Embassy in China also expressed concern about Xu’s conviction. Previously, Ambassador Gary Locke had questioned if the prosecutions of Xu and “other good-governance advocates are retribution for their public campaigns to expose official corruption and for the peaceful expression of their views.”
Xu, 40, had expected that he would be convicted and refused to mount a defense in protest of how the court carried out the trial. He did, however, attempt to read a statement at the end of the trial, which was later made public as a 6,000-plus-word manifesto that’s been widely distributed outside of China.
“When hopes of reform are dashed, people will rise up and seek revolution,” Xu said in his statement. “Peaceful transition to democracy and constitutionalism is the only path the Chinese nation has to a beautiful future.”
Xu’s conviction comes just a day after Chinese authorities accused a leading Uighur economist, Ilham Tohti of promoting “separatism” in his home province of Xinjiang. The province, located in the far western frontier of China, has been the site of regular clashes between Chinese police and settlers and Uighurs, the Turkic-speaking Muslim minority.
Beijing authorities have held Tohti in an undisclosed location since he was escorted from his apartment on the campus of Minzu University of China on Jan. 15.
Tohti’s supporters say he has done nothing more than advocate on behalf of his people and now is likely to be sent to prison for many years under the heavy-handed charge of separatism. “This is the latest of a series of arbitrary detentions, harassments and reprisals going back for years to which Professor Tohti has been subjected,” the Munich-based World Uighur Congress said in a recent statement.
In Xu’s case, he could have been sentenced for up to five years, but only received four, for reasons unexplained by the court.
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