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April 27, 2017

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Jailed China activist Xu Zhiyong defiant as court rejects appeal

BEIJING -- A prominent Chinese legal activist defiantly denounced a court as "absurd" on Friday as it upheld his jail sentence for supporting anti-corruption protests, his lawyer said.

Xu Zhiyong, 40, was sentenced to four years in prison in January for backing demonstrations in which a handful of activists held up banners calling for government officials to disclose their assets, as Beijing cracks down on a burgeoning rights movement.

Beijing's high court rejected his appeal and upheld its original verdict, his lawyer Zhang Qingfang told AFP, but his client remained resolute.

"This absurd judgment cannot halt the tide of human progress," he said Xu told the court. "The communist dictatorship is bound to disperse like haze, and the light of freedom and justice will illuminate the East."

The legal scholar is a founder and central figure in the New Citizens Movement, a loose-knit network which campaigns on corruption, access to education and other issues.

China has put Xu and 10 other members of the movement on trial this year on charges of "gathering a crowd to disturb public order" over the protests in 2013.

"This is absolutely an illegal and ridiculous decision," Zhang said of the appeal ruling.

London-based human rights group Amnesty International said it was a "mockery of justice."

"Xu Zhiyong is a prisoner of conscience and he should be released immediately and unconditionally," Amnesty researcher William Nee said in a statement.

"The authorities must end this merciless persecution of all those associated with the New Citizens Movement."

The U.S. and the European Union condemned the original verdict against Xu and a European diplomat said representatives from at least 10 countries attempted to observe the appeal hearing, but were denied access by police.

Police "grabbed and shoved" at least one diplomat outside the courthouse, said the envoy, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the case.

Asked about the accusation, Beijing's foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a regular briefing that China "safeguards the legitimate rights of diplomats" but also "requests that diplomats respect China's laws."

"The ruling was made by the judicial authorities in accordance with the law," he said of the court's decision, adding that "China is a country governed by the rule of law."

'We are citizens'

Official asset disclosure is seen by some as a key reform which would help tackle graft, amid reports that some government officials have amassed vast wealth.

Three other activists associated with the New Citizens Movement stood trial in China's tightly controlled courts this week, and face maximum five-year jail sentences for their role in the anti-corruption protests.

Xu came to nationwide prominence in 2003, campaigning against a form of extra-legal detention allowing police to detain people arbitrarily if they traveled away from their rural hometowns. The law was ultimately changed.

He went on to provide legal aid to several defendants deemed sensitive by the ruling party, including blind human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng — who later made a spectacular escape from house arrest — and families who sued after their children were poisoned by toxic milk powder in 2008.

Associates of Xu released a message from him on Friday, in which he stated: "Let us in the depths of our hearts, in our daily lives, on the Internet, and on every part of this vast nation, firmly and loudly declare the identity that rightfully belongs to us: I am a citizen, we are citizens."

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