A prominent Chinese rights advocate has refused to speak in court after appearing in a closely watched trial that his supporters say is "hypocritical" and threatens to make a mockery of the Chinese leadership's recent promises of legal reform.
Xu Zhiyong, a 40-year-old legal scholar, is the founder of the New Citizens Movement, a loosely-organised group that has called for greater social equality, judicial reform and for senior Chinese government officials to disclose their assets.
Mr Xu was detained last July after months of informal house arrest, and faces up to five years in jail on charges of "assembling a crowd to disrupt order in a public place".
"We don't want to take part in a piece of theatre, we are not actors, we can't act," he told Agence France-Presse. "The court tried to persuade Xu to speak ... and spent 10 minutes trying to persuade the lawyers to speak ... we will continue to remain silent."
Authorities set up a large cordon around the Beijing courthouse at which the trial was being held on Wednesday, while dozens of police prevented journalists from entering the area. Demonstrators expressing support for Mr Xu dragged away by police, while a number of foreign news crews were also disrupted by uniformed and plain-clothed police while attempting to report.
Mr Xu and members of his movement were emboldened by China's first leadership change in a decade, in late 2012. Encouraged by new President Xi Jinping's promises to stamp out corruption, respect China's constitution and reform its judicial system, the New Citizens Movement expanded its already ambitious campaign and soon began to test the new leadership's tolerance for grassroots political activism.
But the government has moved to crush the movement with a series of arrests that started last April, after a series of mostly small but passionate public demonstrations.
"Instead of [the] promised clampdown on corruption, we are seeing a crackdown against those that want to expose it," said regional research director at Amnesty International Roseanne Rife. "We consider Xu Zhiyong to be a prisoner of conscience and he should be released immediately and unconditionally. Anything less would make a mockery of the Chinese government's ongoing anti-corruption efforts."
In all, at least 20 people connected to the New Citizens Movement have been arrested so far, amid a wider crackdown on Chinese activists, lawyers and journalists. Five other supporters of the movement - Zhao Changqing, Ding Jiaxi, Li Wei, Zhang Baochang and Yuan Dong - also face separate trials this week in Beijing.
Lawyers acting for the activists said trying the defendants separately was not only unfavourable but breached legal regulations, while legal experts have also raised concerns about the court's refusal to allow the defence team to present and cross-examine witnesses.
Mr Xu has gained a large following in China for his consistent campaigning on social issues, having first gained prominence in 2003 for helping victims of tainted baby formula and migrant workers without access to healthcare and education.
"The idea of the New Citizens Movement is not to overthrow, but to establish," he wrote in a 2010 essay. "It's not one social class displacing another social class, but allowing righteousness to take its place in China."
A spokesman at the US Embassy in Beijing said the United States was "deeply concerned" at Mr Xu's prosecution "as retribution for his public campaign to expose official corruption and for the peaceful expression of his views". The prosecution, he said, was part of a pattern of arrests and detention of public interest lawyers, internet activists, journalists, religious leaders and others who peacefully challenge official Chinese policies and actions.
During a regular press briefing on Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Mr Xu's case was "a regular criminal case" that was being handled in accordance with China's law. He said foreign countries should not interfere.
- Fairfax Media