China on Monday put on trial three activists from a group that used protest banners and dinner parties to urge citizens to embrace their constitutional rights, underscoring the Communist Party's intolerance of any semblance of organized political challenge.
The trial of grassroots rights advocates Liu Ping, Wei Zhongping and Li Sihua at a district court in Xinyu city in eastern Jiangxi province was held under tight security.
It adjourned Monday with an unexpected development: After defense lawyers lost a gambit to declare the judges unfit, the judges prevented the lawyers from speaking further and the activists declared they wanted to hire new attorneys. The court did not say when the proceedings would resume.
Police used crowd-control barriers to keep the public, journalists — and diplomats from the United States, the European Union and Canada — about a few hundred meters (yards) away from the courthouse.
"The United States urges the Chinese government to respect internationally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedoms of expression and assembly," said Daniel Delk, the U.S. Embassy's political officer.
The three activists are part of the New Citizens Movement, a loose network of campaigners who have lobbied for officials to declare their assets to help curb corruption. Participants have held small, peaceful demonstrations and organized dinner parties.
Some two dozen members of the group have either been arrested or briefly detained since March, according to other members who have been keeping track. The three campaigners in Xinyu city are the first among them to be tried and other activists say authorities will use it to gauge their support.
"They want to know how many people care enough about the case to travel to a small city," said veteran rights activist Hu Jia. "Will diplomats try to attend trial? Will the foreign media be there?"
The three activists are accused of "illegal assembly" — a charge their lawyer says stems from a photo of them holding signs calling for the release of other protesters. Liu and Wei face an additional public order charge and of "using an evil cult to undermine law enforcement" related to an online post Liu wrote last year about a trial of Falun Gong petitioners.
Defense lawyers called the charges absurd and argued that the judges, who allowed authorities to detain the trio longer than they were legally allowed to, were unfit to rule in the case, said Zhang Xuezhong, one of the attorneys.
But the judges rejected that and appeared to retaliate against the lawyers by preventing them from speaking any further, Zhang said. This made the defendants fear that they would get virtually no hearing for their defense arguments with the current lawyers, so they declared they wanted new ones, he said.
"It's the most rational thing to do to best protect their legal rights," he said after the trial was adjourned to an as-yet unannounced date.
The crackdown on the New Citizens Movement has ensnared a number of prominent activists around the country, including Beijing rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong and a key supporter, the wealthy businessman Wang Gongquan.
Wong reported from Beijing.