China tries three anti-graft activists in two days

BEIJING (REUTERS) - China on Thursday put on trial two activists who agitated for officials to disclose assets, the second day in a series of prosecutions of anti-corruption campaigners that highlight the government's resolve to crush any challenges to its rule.

The trial of Zhao Changqing, a veteran Chinese dissident, was adjourned earlier on Thursday after he dismissed his two lawyers, a decision that would help him delay his case, one of his lawyers, Mr Zhang Xuezhong, told Reuters by telephone.

China's government has waged a 10-month drive against the"New Citizens' Movement", of which Zhao was a member. The movement advocates working within the system to press for change, including urging officials to disclose their assets.

Zhao initiated dinner gatherings in Beijing where citizens discussed the campaign to urge disclosure. He is charged with"gathering a crowd to disturb public order", punishable by up to five years in prison.

Zhao told a Beijing courtroom that he was not guilty of any crime, Mr Zhang said.

"He said that all his actions, including promoting the asset disclosure of officials, promoting equal access to education in China and pursuing the realisation of constitutional democracy are completely legitimate and legal, and in keeping with the basic principles of modern civilisation," Zhang said.

"He felt that the court was being totally unjust and that their allegations were unfair." Zhao would be given 15 days to select two new lawyers. "Only in this way can he avoid a hasty court trial that would be wrapped up before the Chinese New Year," Mr Zhang said.

"If you delay the time a little, there's always the opportunity that there might be a change." Zhao has been jailed three times for pro-democracy activities, including a three-month sentence for his involvement in the June 4, 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square.

The campaign against the movement exposes the ambivalence in Beijing's bid to root out pervasive corruption, even as President Xi Jinping leads a new campaign to tackle graft.

China has detained at least 20 activists involved in pressing for asset disclosure, although not all are from the New Citizens' Movement.

Another activist, Hou Xin, stood trial in a Beijing court on Thursday afternoon. Hou was one of four activists who unfurled a banner in Beijing last year urging officials to declare assets.

Hou, who is out on bail, is also charged with "gathering a crowd to disturb public order", her lawyer, Mr Ding Xikui, told Reuters ahead of Hou's trial.

Hou will plead not guilty, said Mr Ding, adding that he will argue that a reasonable form of expression does not constitute disturbing public order.

Prominent rights advocate Xu Zhiyong, who founded the "New Citizens' Movement", went on trial on Wednesday, but his lawyer said he refused to offer any defence and called the court unjust.