(New York) – The Chinese government should immediately drop all charges against Guangzhou activists Guo Feixiong and Sun Desheng and release them. Guo and Sun will be tried in Tianhe District Court in Guangzhou, Guandong Province on November 28 for organizing and taking part in a peaceful public protest.

“Beijing’s assault on civil society seems to know no bounds as peaceful activists are increasingly subject to criminal prosecutions,” says Sophie Richardson, China Director at Human Rights Watch. “At what point will the Chinese government realize individuals like Guo Feixiong and Sun Desheng are allies in strengthening the rule of law, not enemies of the state?”

Guo, whose real name is Yang Maodong, and Sun have been detained since August 2013 and are charged with “gathering crowds to disturb social order.” The two were originally scheduled to be tried on September 12, 2014, but the trial was rescheduled because their lawyers boycotted the proceedings. The lawyers said that authorities had failed to give them sufficient advance notice of the trial date, barred them from copying case materials, and refused to try two others involved in the same case in the same trial, all violations of Chinese law. Guo and Sun remained silent during the September proceedings to protest these procedural violations.  

According to Guo’s indictment, he held placards and gave 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.

Guo has been abused during his 15 months in detention. Although Article 25 of the Detention Center Regulations requires that detainees be allowed out of their cells to exercise every day, Guo has not been allowed out of his overcrowded cell once. 

Their trial comes at a time when the Chinese government appears to be increasingly using criminal prosecutions on spurious charges against activists. On November 13, the criminal case against lawyer Pu Zhiqiang was transferred to the procurator’s office for likely indictment; on November 21, the Xinjiang High People’s Court announced it would uphold a life sentence for Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti, and on the same day the Beijing No.3 Intermediate People’s Court began the trial of prominent journalist Gao Yu in Beijing for allegedly “leaking state secrets.”

“From Beijing to Guangzhou to Xinjiang, activists operating wholly within the confines of the law are being prosecuted,” Richardson said. “The dire situation demands a much stronger international response from governments who defend civil society.”