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China rushes to try activists during Western holidays

by gillian Wong

AP

Chinese authorities are ramping up prosecutions of rights activists during the year-end holidays, apparently hoping the West will be paying less attention to its wide-ranging crackdown on dissent, which has drawn international criticism all year.

In recent days, prosecutors and courts in various localities have moved to indict or prepare to put on trial several dissidents and activists in the coming weeks, according to more than half a dozen rights lawyers.

Some of the cases, pending for months, have suddenly picked up speed in the past several days, they said, perhaps in the hope of moving the cases to court while Western diplomats, rights groups and reporters are off-duty for the holidays.

“Most of the defense lawyers handling these cases feel that the momentum has increased,” said one of the attorneys, Zhang Xuezhong. He said courts have been contacting lawyers and urging them to quickly process the necessary paperwork for their cases.

“I think they hope to hold the trial around Christmas and convict them before the Chinese New Year,” Zhang said. The Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, starts Jan. 31.

This week, Chinese prosecutors in a southern city indicted activist Liu Yuandong for leading demonstrations outside a newspaper office in January over a censorship dispute. Meanwhile, veteran dissident Zhang Lin stood trial Wednesday for April demonstrations at which dozens of people flocked to an eastern city to protest an elementary school for preventing his 10-year-old daughter from attending class.

In Beijing, a lawyer representing Xu Zhiyong, a prominent legal activist who founded the New Citizens Movement, a loose network of campaigners against corruption and for equal access to education, said Xu would be put on trial in late December. At least half a dozen other activists associated with Xu’s group were charged last week and were expected to be tried this month.

The timing could be a coincidence, but rights lawyers and activists point to a precedent set by Chinese authorities in recent years of choosing the Christmas period to impose heavy prison sentences on well-known activists and dissidents. Among the most famous is now-Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, whose 11-year sentence for subversion was handed down on Christmas Day in 2009. Two activists in 2011 separately received nine- and 10-year sentences around Christmas.

This year, the activists have another thing in common. They have taken their causes to the street in protests that were mainly peaceful, small and fleeting, but crossed a hard line that authorities have drawn. In most cases, the activists have been criminally charged with public disturbance, which carries a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment.

“The authorities are suppressing any kind of street action,” said Liu Xiaoyuan, the lawyer of Zhang Lin, whose pleas for his daughter to attend a school in Hefei triggered an outpouring of anger online and drew crowds to the city. “They are worried that (the street protests) can spread widely to other cities or become a nationwide movement.”