Leading China activist to be sentenced on Sunday as others go on trial

Chinese rights advocate Xu Zhiyong speaks during a meeting in Beijing, in this handout photo dated on March 30, 2013. A Beijing court will sentence prominent Chinese rights activist Xu Zhiyong on Sunday, Jan 26, 2014,  in the highest-profil
Chinese rights advocate Xu Zhiyong speaks during a meeting in Beijing, in this handout photo dated on March 30, 2013. A Beijing court will sentence prominent Chinese rights activist Xu Zhiyong on Sunday, Jan 26, 2014,  in the highest-profile dissident trial since 2009, as authorities target rights defenders nationwide with another activist standing trial in Guangzhou. -- FILE PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (REUTERS) - A Beijing court will sentence prominent Chinese rights activist Xu Zhiyong on Sunday in the highest-profile dissident trial since 2009, as authorities target rights defenders nationwide with another activist standing trial in Guangzhou.

Xu's lawyer, Zhang Qingfang, said he had been notified in writing by authorities as early as Wednesday when Xu's trial kicked off, that he would be sentenced on Sunday in one of the most closely-watched dissident cases in years.

"This means that even before the trial, the court had already communicated this and that they had already discussed what the verdict would be and the timing of the sentencing," Zhang told Reuters by telephone.

Zhang said he believed the swift sentencing suggested authorities wanted politically sensitive cases like Xu's to be closed ahead of the March meeting of China's rubber stamp parliament, the National People's Congress.

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

The campaign against the movement exposes the ambivalence in Beijing's bid to root out corruption, even as the authorities claim greater transparency.

Xu's trial is China's highest-profile dissident proceeding since 2009, when Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo was put on trial for subversion after he helped organise the "Charter 08" petition urging the overthrow of one-party rule. Liu was jailed for 11 years.

The Chinese government has intensified a clampdown against the human rights community nationwide over the past year.

In Guangzhou on Friday supporters of activist Liu Yuandong were barred from attending his trial as dozens of uniformed police guarded and blocked access to the area.

Rights lawyers including Liu Shihui and Chen Jinxue were manhandled by police according to Twitter posts by supporters, including Cao Yaxue who said Chen had "been wrestled to the ground by several state security officers and beaten". Calls to Liu Shihui and three other rights activists in Guangzhou went answered, though one said he had been forced to leave town by authorities. Liu Yuandong's lawyer also could not be reached by phone.

Liu is accused of gathering a crowd to disrupt public order during a series of street protests last January outside the gates of the Southern Weekly - to protest against excessive censorship at the influential Chinese newspaper.

Several other prominent activists are still due to go on trial including Guo Feixiong, who was also detained last year in Guangzhou in connection to the Southern Weekly protests.

On Thursday, Zhao Changqing, a veteran dissident, and Hou Xin, a campaigner, also went on trial in Beijing.

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