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(New York) – The Chinese government should immediately drop all politically motivated charges and release the prominent rights activist Xu Zhiyong, Human Rights Watch said today. Xu may go on trial as early as December 28, 2013, an apparent effort to minimize international scrutiny of the case during the holiday season.

Xu, 40, has been a longtime advocate of legal reform and critic of the one-party system in China. He was arrested in April. Xu faces up to five years in prison for the crime of “organizing a crowd to disrupt public order,” after a series of small-scale protests by members of the nongovernmental New Citizens’ Movement. The indictment filed against Xu claims that he organized and encouraged parents to demonstrate in front of the Education Ministry for the right to enroll their children in local schools and organized protests against official corruption.

“President Xi Jinping says he is committed to fighting corruption in China, but when Xu Zhiyong spoke out on the issue, he was arrested,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The best evidence that the charges against Xu Zhiyong are spurious is the official indictment, which describes nothing more than peaceful protests on issues of great public concern.”

Xu, a law lecturer at Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications, has been named by the state broadcaster CCTV as one of the “top 10 rule of law figures” in China. In 2003, his joint petition to the National People’s Congress led to the abolition of the administrative detention system of “custody and repatriation” as unconstitutional.

In 2009, Xu was forced to disband the Open Constitution Initiative, the legal aid center he helped set up, after police detained him and a co-worker in a trumped-up case of tax evasion. In 2012, Xu was one of the founders of the New Citizens’ Movement, an initiative to develop civil society in China within the confines of the one-party political system. 

The authorities placed Xu under house arrest in April 2013. He was taken into custody on July 16, and formally arrested on August 2. The police transferred Xu’s case to the state prosecution agency on December 4. He was formally indicted under article 291 of the Criminal Law on December 13.

Xu’s prosecution appears to be part of a wider crackdown on the New Citizens’ Movement. The movement is an informal civic rights group that has advocated the promotion of civic rights, including the disclosure of officials’ assets to curb corruption, and protecting the rights of children of migrant workers.

The authorities have also arrested a civic-minded business investor, Wang Gongquan, who has been detained on the same charges as Xu since September 13, and have detained about 50 more activists around the country. Three members of the New Citizens’ Movement were tried for “illegal assembly” on December 3; the verdict has yet to be announced.

The indictment of Xu in the Beijing Intermediate People’s Court No. 1 states that on July 5, 2012, Xu, as “the ringleader,” “organized and incited over 100 people to gather in front of the Education Ministry, where they unfurled banners, made a racket, and defied and obstructed public security police officers from enforcing the law, creating serious chaos at that location.”

The indictment further states that Xu and others used the issue of “public officials’ asset disclosure” to “organize and orchestrate the gathering of many people in public places,” suggesting that any protest was unlawful.

The indictment describes various actions by demonstrators – such as “unfurling banners and distributing leaflets,” “using a megaphone,” “attracting a crowd of onlookers,” and “uploading photos on internet” – that are lawful on their face. It says that protesters resisted law enforcement personnel orders to disperse, but drew no connection to Xu, who was not at the demonstration.

Xu’s lawyer, Zhang Qingfang, has pointed out publicly that neither the police nor the state prosecution authorities have explained why the disturbance to public order was “serious” given that there were no allegations of violence against the police or property damage.

The protest came after the group’s years of peaceful campaigning to allow children of migrant workers to enroll in public schools. The campaign had included the publication of research reports, legal briefs, repeated requests to meet with Education Ministry officials, and attempts to litigate through the courts.

“The politically motivated character of Xu’s prosecution makes a conviction a near certainty if this case goes to trial,” Adams said. “Xu’s treatment is a test-case for the broader fate of civil society in China under Xi Jinping.”

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