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Published: Wednesday January 29, 2014 MYT 1:35:01 PM
Updated: Wednesday January 29, 2014 MYT 1:35:59 PM

China convicts two anti-graft activists in crackdown

BEIJING (Reuters) - China convicted two anti-graft campaigners on Wednesday for their roles in a protest urging officials to reveal their assets, the latest measures in a crackdown that has sparked international criticism.

The government has waged a 10-month drive on the "New Citizens' Movement", which advocates working within the system to press for change.

Wednesday's convictions came just three days after movement founder Xu Zhiyong, one of China's most prominent rights activists, was sentenced to four years in prison. The United States, the European Union and rights groups condemned his sentence.

A Beijing court convicted the protesters, Hou Xin and Yuan Dong, on a charge of "gathering a crowd to disturb public order".

Yuan was sentenced to 1-1/2 years in prison, but Hou escaped a jail term because the court considered her action a "less serious" crime, lawyers for the two and the court's official microblog said.

"They are not only innocent, but they are among the best and most outstanding people in China," said Yuan's lawyer, Chen Jiangang. "They are China's conscience."

Yuan, who was tried on Monday, will definitely appeal against the judgment, Chen told Reuters by telephone. "I believe they should not even sentence him to a day," he added.

Yuan and Hou were among four activists who unfurled banners and gave speeches in a busy western part of the capital last March, urging officials to disclose their assets.

While President Xi Jinping has made battling corruption a priority, authorities have shown no sign of agreeing to demands for such disclosures by all officials and at least 20 activists urging the revelations have been detained.

Wary of any organised challenge to the Chinese Communist Party's rule, Xi's administration has ratcheted up pressure on dissent. It has clamped down on critics on the Internet and tightened curbs on journalists.

The recent rulings are a message from Xi and his government that they regard the development of civil society as a threat, said Joseph Cheng, a professor of Chinese politics at the City University of Hong Kong.

"In the eyes of the reformers and liberals in China, Xi Jinping is more or less following the Putin model, rather than the Gorbachev model," he said.

Rights groups accuse Russian President Vladimir Putin of enacting repressive policies. Nobel Peace laureate Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms helped end the Cold War but led to the Soviet Union's demise.

"It seems that Xi Jinping has no interest in promoting serious political reforms," Cheng added.

The United States said it was "deeply disappointed" at the sentence for Yuan.

"We are concerned that today's conviction, like that of legal scholar and rights advocate Xu Zhiyong just earlier this week, is retribution for his public campaign to expose official corruption and for the official expression of his views," said U.S. embassy official Daniel Delk.

Chen said the court did not respond to any of the lawyers' requests to address improprieties in the judicial proceedings.

In his closing statement to the court, Yuan, who has been detained for more than nine months, said he requested that Xi be the first official to publicly disclose his assets "in a peaceful and reasonable manner".

"The authorities' placing us in the dock to be convicted and sentenced is a blatant display of the party's suppression of civil rights," Yuan said in Monday's statement, obtained by Reuters.

The verdict handed down to Hou was "OK", said her lawyer Ding Jiaxi, as the court held that her action presented less of a danger to society. "But we still pleaded not guilty, so there's still some gap with our hopes," he added.

Reporters and Western diplomats were not allowed near the courthouse, which was surrounded by tight security.

Hou, released on bail because of illness, told the court during her trial last Thursday that she was innocent, saying she had merely exercised her right to free expression by taking photographs during the March protest.

Hou told the court she believed "the highest form of patriotism is supervising the government, supervising the ruling party, and not just singing praises and flattering leaders."

"The cruel and the wicked are in power and corruption is rampant," according to a statement she posted online. "Pick out a corrupt official at random and his or her vices would stun the whole world. Such is the tragedy of our generation."

(Additional reporting by Maxim Duncan; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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