China activist Xu Zhiyong sentenced to 4 years' jail

Prominent Chinese legal activist Xu Zhiyong was sentenced to four years' jail on Sunday for his role in anti-graft protests, a court said, furthering a crackdown on a rights movement he championed. -- FILE PHOTO: REUTERS
Prominent Chinese legal activist Xu Zhiyong was sentenced to four years' jail on Sunday for his role in anti-graft protests, a court said, furthering a crackdown on a rights movement he championed. -- FILE PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (AFP) - Prominent Chinese legal activist Xu Zhiyong was sentenced to four years' jail on Sunday for his role in anti-graft protests, a court said, furthering a crackdown on a rights movement he championed.

The Beijing intermediate court "sentenced Xu Zhiyong to four years in jail" after finding him guilty of "gathering crowds to disrupt public order", it announced on an official account on Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter.

Officers in uniform and plain clothes blocked pedestrians and an AFP journalist from approaching the courthouse in the west of the capital, which had been cordoned off with police tape.

Lawyer Xu, 40, was a central figure in the New Citizens Movement, a loose network of activists who organised sporadic street protests and dinner discussions on causes from education equality to official corruption.

He is among 10 activists facing trial for disrupting public order - a charge that carries a maximum five-year sentence - after they held banners in public urging authorities to disclose their assets as a check against graft.

Xu was the first to be sentenced.

New leaders under President Xi Jinping have also carried out a high-profile campaign against corruption, warning it could destroy the ruling Communist party.

But the authorities fear any organised dissent that could undermine their control, and the activists are almost certain to be found guilty by China's politically controlled courts.

In total 20 to 40 people involved with the New Citizens Movement have been detained since last year, according to members.

Xu gained prominence as he sought to uphold rights through the court system by offering legal aid in controversial cases - and even made the cover of China's Esquire magazine in 2009.

But as he increasingly pushed for change, Xu found himself arrested that year on tax evasion charges. Although these were later dropped, he remained under surveillance and sporadic house arrest.

Xu's prosecution was condemned by international rights groups as well as the US and the EU - criticism that China's government has rejected as interference in its internal affairs.

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