(New York) – The trial of three activists who publicly supported a tough anti-corruption measure will be a bellwether of the new Chinese leadership’s attitude toward peaceful activism, Human Rights Watch said today.

Liu Ping, Wei Zhongping, and Li Sihua will be the first among a group of activists affiliated with the New Citizens Movement to go on trial. The trial is scheduled for October 28, 2013, in a Jiangxi court. At least 15 others involved in the movement, a civil rights platform, have also been detained for urging the government to require officials to publicly disclose their assets.

“Liu, Wei, and Li are canaries in the coal mine for how the government intends to treat this influential group of anti-corruption activists,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “Anything short of acquittal will seriously undermine the credibility of the government’s claims to be cracking down on corruption.”

Liu, Wei, and Li were taken into custody on April 27 after they gathered to support requiring officials to publicly disclose their assets and to press for the release of other activists arrested for their involvement with the New Citizens Movement. The three were initially detained for “inciting subversion of state power,” but the charge was later changed to “illegal assembly.” Since then, the authorities have also charged Liu and Wei with “gathering crowds to disturb public order” and “using a cult to undermine implementation of the law.”

According to a statement written by Liu’s lawyer on the case, the first additional charge was for distributing flyers in 2011 in front of the supermarket for their candidacy to the local People’s Congress. The second refers to the calls for support by the two activists on QQ, an instant messaging tool, for a Falun Gong practitioner who faced trial in August 2012.

The New Citizens Movement was established in May 2012. It advocates civic values including equality, justice, freedom, and the rule of law, and it rejects authoritarianism. Activists involved with the movement have organized a wide range of activities, including the nationwide campaign to press the Chinese government to institute the public disclosure of officials’ assets as a means of combating corruption.

At least 18 activists affiliated with the movement, including the prominent activist Xu Zhiyong, have been arrested since April. They were taken into custody together with dozens of other activists who were not directly affiliated with the movement as part of the government’s crackdown on activists and online expression.

Many of the detained activists swept up in the current crackdown, including the three in Jiangxi, are charged with crimes such as “gathering crowds to disturb order” and “creating disturbances.” The arrests may be related to a notice issued in June by the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, which investigates and prosecutes crimes, that prosecutors at all levels should “combat the crimes of endangering national security” by “resolutely combating crimes such as illegal assemblies, the gathering of crowds to disturb social and public order, and others, which aim to subvert state power.”

Although the Chinese Constitution guarantees citizens’ right to assembly, the 1989 Law on Assembly, Procession, and Demonstration (the Assembly Law) and its implementing regulations outline such restrictive requirements that the right is effectively denied. Chinese law requires police approval for protests. But people who seek permission are usually turned down and suffer retaliation. 

The Chinese government should immediately release the three Jiangxi activists and all other activists detained in the current crackdown.

The Chinese government is running for election to the world’s top human rights body – the Human Rights Council – in November. Other UN member countries should use the opportunity to raise these cases and press for the activists’ release.

“As Beijing steps up its repression at home, so too should UN member countries step up pressure for China to comply with international standards on fundamental rights like freedom of expression,” Richardson said.