(New York) – The Chinese government should release the activists Guo Feixiong and Sun Desheng, who are to go on trial on September 12, 2014, in Guangzhou City, Guangdong Province, Human Rights Watch said today. Guo and Sun face charges for their peaceful advocacy against corruption and for human rights.

“Much of Guo’s and Sun’s work echoed authorities’ stated policy goals, such as fighting corruption, so where’s the evidence they violated any Chinese law?” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “If Guo’s and Sun’s public comments and conduct are criminal, many government officials ought to be on trial too.”

Guo, whose real name is Yang Maodong, 48, was taken into custody on August 8, 2013, and is charged with the crime of “gathering crowds to disturb public order.” Sun, 32, is a Guangzhou activist who was arrested.

Guo’s alleged crimes, according to the indictment, involved holding placards and giving speeches at a demonstration outside the headquarters of Southern Weekly, an outspoken newspaper, when its journalists publicly protested censorship of an editorial in January 2013. The indictment also accuses Guo of organizing others, including Sun, to post online photos of themselves engaged in similar peaceful expression in eight other cities. The indictment does not explain precisely how Guo or Sun disturbed public order, except that their activities had attracted “crowds gathering and watching” in these cities, “obstructing law enforcement of the police.”

One of Guo’s lawyers told Human Rights Watch that the placards called for press freedom, for officials to publicly disclose their assets, and for the Chinese government to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which it signed in 1998.

Since assuming power in March 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping has initiated a crackdown on official corruption. In 2011, former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao identified public disclosure of officials’ assets as a “long-run” goal for China, and, since that time, dozens of city and county governments have briefly piloted disclosure programs. At the periodic review of its human rights record in October 2013 before the United Nations Human Rights Council, China recommitted itself to ratifying the ICCPR.

At least two of Guo’s and Sun’s lawyers have said that they will boycott the September 12, 2014 trial in response to multiple procedural violations, including the authorities’ failure to give the lawyers sufficient advance notice of the trial date, as required under Chinese law. It is unclear if the court will go ahead with the trial, given the lawyers’ protests. Guo was also denied access to lawyers for months during his time in detention.

Guo has a long history of activism. He worked closely with the prominent human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, and is considered one of the leaders of the weiquan (rights defense) movement, which started around 2003. He is best known for providing legal assistance to villagers in Taishi, Guangdong province, as they sought to remove the allegedly corrupt village leader from office.

As a result of his involvement in Taishi and other cases, he was imprisoned for five years, from 2006 to 2011, on charges of “illegal business activities.” While in detention, he was repeatedly beaten, subjected to electric shocks to his genitals, restrained and immobilized for over a month, and subjected to sleep deprivation. Guo remained active following his release, participating in key rights activities in Guangdong Province since 2011.

Over the past year, the Chinese government has systematically tightened a range of already limited human rights. The government has issued new directives and regulations criminalizing free speech on the Internet and gagging Chinese journalists. The government has issued an internal warning to members of the ruling Chinese Communist Party against “seven perils,” including free press and democracy, in what is known as Document Number 9. This harder-line stance has resulted in the detentions and prosecutions of many activists, including prominent moderate activists such as the lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, the Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti, and the legal scholar Xu Zhiyong.

“Xi Jinping’s government seems bent on destroying a community that is arguably one of its best and most moderate assets in addressing serious problems inside China,” Richardson said. “Guo Feixiong should be serving as an anti-corruption adviser to senior leaders – not becoming another victim of their politicized campaigns.”