BEIJING Two Chinese activists who agitated for officials to disclose assets argued their innocence at trials on Thursday, the second day in a series of prosecutions of anti-corruption campaigners highlighting the government's resolve to crush any challenges.
The trial of Zhao Changqing, a veteran Chinese dissident, was adjourned after he dismissed his two lawyers in a move that would help delay his case, one of his lawyers, 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. It advocates working within the system to press for change, including urging officials to reveal their assets.
Zhao initiated dinner gatherings in Beijing where citizens discussed the disclosure campaign. He is charged with "gathering a crowd to disturb public order", an offence punishable by up to five years in prison.
Zhao told a Beijing courtroom that he was not guilty of any crime, 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 get 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," 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 disclose their assets.
Hou, who has been released on bail, is also charged with "gathering a crowd to disturb public order", her lawyer, Ding Xikui, told Reuters.
"She defended herself, (saying) she believes she's innocent," Ding said. "She expressed her views -- that this is a normal and legitimate expression and not a crime."
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.
Diplomats said they were shut out of Zhao's trial, which was surrounded by heavy security. Police hauled a dozen petitioners away from the courthouse and fended off foreign reporters.
"As you can see by our continued presence today, the United States remains deeply concerned that Chinese authorities are prosecuting individuals as retribution for their peaceful expression of views," said Daniel Delk, second secretary for the
political section at the U.S. embassy.
He urged Chinese authorities to immediately release all political prisoners involved in the asset disclosure cases.
The Global Times, a popular tabloid owned by Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily, said China should not be "overly sensitive" about the West's special attention and support to dissidents.
"But the Chinese people will never allow the attitudes of external forces to guide the country's attitude in its internal affairs," it said in a comment.
On its microblog account, the Beijing No.1 Intermediate Court said Wang Gongquan, a venture capitalist and close friend of Xu's who was arrested last October, had confessed to "planning and inciting a mob to disturb public order" together with Xu.
But Zhang Qingfang, Xu's lawyer, said the posting was a "complete distortion of facts".
Five more activists will stand trial in Beijing and the southern city of Guangzhou on Friday and Monday. Three went on trial in December and face more than 10 years in prison if convicted.
On Wednesday, Xu attempted to read a closing statement to the court, but was cut short by the judge. In the statement, he defended the "New Citizens' Movement".
"More than 137 countries and territories around the world currently have systems in place for officials to declare assets, so why can't China? What exactly is it these 'public servants' fear so much?" he wrote.
(Additional reporting by Maxim Duncan and Michael Martina; Editing by Paul Tait and Clarence Fernandez)