XINYU, China (AP) — Three Chinese activists from a group that urges fellow citizens to embrace their constitutional rights stood trial Monday in a closely watched case that underscores the Communist Party's intolerance of organized political challenge — no matter how small.
A few Western diplomats who had traveled to a southeastern city to attend the trial were blocked from entering the courthouse.
The trial of grassroots rights advocates Liu Ping, Wei Zhongping and Li Sihua opened at a district court in Xinyu city in eastern Jiangxi province under tight security, with 30 police officers stationed at barricades outside the courthouse. Their lawyers made brief statements to reporters before security ushered them away.
"We think they are innocent, so that's what we are going to explain in the court and we are pretty confident," said Li's lawyer, Pang Kun.
Police used plastic crowd-control barriers to keep members of the public — and diplomats from the United States, the European Union and Canada — about a few hundred meters (yards) away from the courthouse. A woman surnamed Xiao from the Yushui court's main office said the diplomats had tried to apply for permits to attend the trial but that their embassies were told that there were none left.
The three activists are part of a loose network of campaigners known as the New Citizens Movement, whose participants have lobbied for officials to declare their assets to help curb widespread corruption. The campaigners have held small, peaceful demonstrations in several cities, usually involving a handful of people holding banners, making speeches or collecting signatures.
Some two dozen members of the group have either been arrested or briefly detained since March, according to other members who have been keeping track, highlighting the concern Chinese leaders have about protests that could gain momentum and challenge Communist Party rule.
The three campaigners in Xinyu city are the first of the New Citizens members to be put on trial and other activists say the government appears to be using their prosecution to test the level of support the group has.
"They want to know how many people care enough about the case to travel to a small city," said veteran rights activist Hu Jia. "Will diplomats try to attend trial? Will the foreign media be there? They are using this case to test this in a place that's far away from Beijing."
Hu said he heard from New Citizens' supporters in Jiangxi and neighboring provinces that they were either put under informal house arrest or told by police not to travel to Xinyu.
Among the charges the three activists face is that of illegal assembly — for a momentary gathering in April at an open space at Liu's apartment building to pose for a photo while holding signs calling for other New Citizen protesters to be released. The photo was later circulated online.
Liu and Wei face additional charges of gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place and "using an evil cult to undermine law enforcement." The latter charge relates to an online post that Liu wrote about a trial of Falun Gong petitioners in Shanghai in August last year.
Their lawyers have called the charges against the activists absurd and argued that authorities have detained the trio for longer than they are allowed to by law.
Human Rights Watch researcher Maya Wang said the trial showed that the Chinese government viewed protests as threats to its power. "The current crackdown is meant to reinforce such a message, that organized and public actions will be met by zero tolerance under the new leadership," Wang said.
The crackdown on the New Citizens Movement has ensnared a number of prominent activists around the country, including Beijing rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong and a key supporter, the wealthy businessman Wang Gongquan. International rights groups and some Western governments have voiced concern about the detentions and arrests related to peaceful assembly.
The group also includes academics and people who have been trying to draw attention to their grievances. Liu Ping became a labor activist a few years ago after being laid off from a steel mill but garnered attention among Chinese Internet users when she was detained, followed and otherwise punished for trying to run as an independent candidate in a local election in 2011.
Wong reported from Beijing.