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Published: Friday January 24, 2014 MYT 9:10:02 PM
Updated: Friday January 24, 2014 MYT 9:11:08 PM

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 March 30, 2013. REUTERS/Xiao Guozhen/Handout via Reuters

Chinese rights advocate Xu Zhiyong speaks during a meeting in Beijing in this handout photo dated March 30, 2013. REUTERS/Xiao Guozhen/Handout via Reuters

HONG KONG (Reuters) - A Beijing court will sentence prominent Chinese rights activist Xu Zhiyong on Sunday in a high-profile dissident trial, as authorities targeted rights defenders nationwide with another activist standing trial in Guangzhou.

Xu's lawyer, Zhang Qingfang, said he'd 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.

China has waged a 10-month drive against Xu's "New Citizens' Movement", arresting and trying a number of members who'd pushed for Communist officials to disclose their assets and campaigned for social equality and the rule of law.

China has detained at least 20 activists involved in pressing for asset disclosure, though not all are from the New Citizens' Movement. 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 is China's highest-profile dissident trial 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.

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 a large number of police guarded and blocked access to the court.

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 unanswered. Other social media posts suggested that well over a dozen activists had been detained at the courthouse or prevented from leaving their homes.

Liu, one of the leaders of a group called the "Southern Street Movement" advocating social justice and greater democracy, 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.

Liu Yuandong's lawyer, Liu Zhengqing, said the activist had pleaded not-guilty during the one-day hearing. "He didn't admit to committing any crime," said the lawyer after the trial.

"He said he was doing something just and would do the same again if given the opportunity."

No date was given for a verdict.

Liu's indictment also accused him of a charge of business fraud for a false declaration when registering a company.

Guo Feixiong, another prominent activist who was detained last year in Guangzhou in connection to the Southern Weekly protests, is also expected to go on trial soon.

(Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee in Beijing and Venus Wu; Editing by Michael Perry and Nick Macfie)

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