In China prominent human rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong stood trial for public disturbance Wednesday, January 22. Xu was charged with the crime of “assembling a crowd to disrupt order in a public place” at the International People’s Court in Beijing, China. Xu and his defense, in response to what they called an unjust trial, decided to maintain their silence during the trial. The judge attempted to persuade the defendants to speak, but they refused, and so the judge called for a recess.
The trial was held in what Xu Zhiyon’s defense council, Zhang Qingfang, called a “black box.” Zhang commented that he was defending Xu in what would be an unfair trial. The trial was the subject of a media blackout and the court Wednesday was stationed with uniformed and plainclothes police. The police outside the courthouse prevented reporters from filming and dragged away protesters.
Zhang and others have described the trial as a case of political persecution, and called on the judges involved to ask themselves in their hearts if Xu was really guilty. The defense strategy adopted by Zhang and Xu was silent protest. The defense decided not to speak during the trial as a political statement in response to what they consider unfair procedures. Xu Zhiyong intended, however, to release a statement after the trial concluded.
Those who believe that the trial of prominent human rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong is an unfair political show trial point to Xu’s vocal characterization of his political beliefs and organizations as part of a political movement. Xu spoke about the use of dinner gatherings to discuss political issues. Xu was seen by the government and others, however, as moving from the region of talk to that of action. Fearing street protests and their organizers, the government stepped up persecution of leaders and organizers of unfriendly political movements as a pre-emptive measure, according to commenters.
Xu Zhiyong is a legal scholar, activist and former lecturer at Beijing’s University of Posts and Telecommunications. Xu was arrested formally in August, 2013, after being placed on house arrest and then detainment in months preceding.
Xu was the co-founder of two notable activist groups, the Gongmeng Open Constitution Initiaitive (OCI) and the New Citizens Movement. The OCI was an organization of lawyers and academics who sought greater rule of law and constitutional protection. The OCI used the Internet to distribute essays on their ideas, including a criticism of Chinese policy in Tibet. The OCI also took on several notable cases, including pro bono legal aid to the families of an infamous tainted milk additive suit in 2008 that killed 6 infants and hospitalized 54,000 of the other 300,000 victims affected.
The OCI was founded by Xu and others in 2003 after the brutal killing of Sun Zhigang in Guangzhou, China. Sun died 72 hours after a beating he received in detention. Sun was detained for not providing a temporary living permit and ID card. The controversial repatriation system in effect at the time provided authorities with the right to detain civilians who did not possess such a permit. The OCI and others petitioned the National People’s Congress (NPC) amid a storm of media publicity and the law was abolished later in 2013.
The end of the OCI came after the organization was fined $230 million dollars in July of 2009, followed weeks later by Xu Zhiyong’s arrest for tax evasion. The OCI was then declared illegal and shut down by the Chinese government.
The activists have made statements characterizing the legal campaign against them as a campaign against dissent. The new Chinese President Xi Jinping had come into power after promises of transparency reforms and calls for the end of authoritarian rule, but Xi stepped up persecution of political dissidents in the first half of 2013. Luo Lo, an activist who cooperated with Xu in educational issues, stated that carrying banners, the organizing of protests and the filing of petitions have been suppressed more severely under Xi.
The trial of prominent human rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong’s Wednesday in Beijing, China is expected to be continued Thursday and Friday. Xu’s is the first of eight related trials of political activists. The common causes of these alleged criminals include advocacy for greater rule of law, fairer access to education and asset disclosure for government officials. Four trials will take place during the next two days in Beijing and Guangzhou.
By Day Blakely Donaldson