Three grass-roots activist faced trial in China on Monday on charges that human rights activists say were fabricated in an attempt to stop their campaign for more political accountability.
Liu Ping, Wei Zhongping and Li Sihua were charged with illegal assembly for a picture they took and uploaded online. In the photograph the three stood in front of a residential building holding banners calling for Chinese officials to disclose their assets. A week after taking the picture, the three were arrested.
Zhang Dejin, a fellow activist from Fujian province, says that authorities in the city of Xinyu - where the trial is held - are playing games with the law.
“Today they charge you with one thing, tomorrow they charge you with another," he said. "They do not treat people like people should be treated, and they are not upholding the law.”
The defendants have been active in the New Citizens' movement, a loosely organized group that advocates for more transparency and accountability in government policies. In recent months, more than a dozen participants have been detained and accused of disrupting social order with their activism. Among the people targeted are prominent rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong and wealthy Beijing entrepreneur Wang Gongquan.
Independent filmmaker and activist Ai Xiaoming said that Monday's trial is an attempt to intimidate the whole movement.
“They are establishing a precedent and starting punishing members of the New Citizens' Movement,” Ai said.
The movement has been calling on China's government to uphold the country's constitution and protect citizens' rights. One of the group's key demands is for high ranking officials disclose their wealth to the public.
China’s new leaders have emphasized strictly abiding by the constitution and sternly dealing with corruption. The Southern province Guangdong has launched pilot schemes of asset disclosure among its low-level administration. But despite the tough language from officials, transparency activists have reported increasing harassment.
Ai Xiaoming said that by suppressing citizens' advocacy, the party is ensuring that its grip on society remains firm.
“Having a one party rule is the easiest way to govern for them,” she said, “If you do not have people monitoring officials, then the advantages are all to benefit the interest groups in power.”
Defendant Liu Ping is a long time petitioner for labor rights in China. She started her activism after being laid off from the state-run steel factory where she had worked most of her life.
In 2011, she ran as an independent candidate for her district’s People's Congress. Low level elections are often touted by China's leadership as a sign of the government welcoming people's participation. Yet candidates that decide to run independently from the party, like Liu Ping, are harassed during campaigns and usually prevented from appearing on ballots.
Zhang Dejin also ran as an independent in Fujian, and he too was eventually removed from the list of candidates.
“We are just ordinary citizens,” Zhang said, “and as we try to participate in the People's Congress, we are stifled by authorities and cannot find opportunities.”
Liu Ping is also charged with "gathering a crowd to disturb order in a public place" and "using an evil cult to undermine the law".
Liu's lawyer Zhang Xuezhong said the latter charge is related to an online post that Liu wrote in August 2012 calling attention to the trial of a member of the spiritual group Falun Gong, which the Chinese government considers an illegal organization.
Activist Ai Xiaoming said the trio will most likely be found guilty, but their personal sacrifice will in fact help the cause.
“This trial will have the effect of increasing their influence: more people will take note of their names and will support them," she said.
If found guilty, the defendants face a maximum of five years in prison. It is rare for courts in China to find defendants in criminal cases innocent, and analysts believe this case will follow the pattern.
Fellow activists who travelled to Xinyu to show their support for the defendants have reportedly been followed, detained, and in some cases escorted back to their homes by police.