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China court jails 4 anti-graft activists for protests asking officials to disclose assets

BEIJING -- A Chinese court on Friday sentenced four anti-corruption protesters to between two and three-and-a-half years in jail over their role in small-scale demonstrations, furthering a crackdown on rights activists.

The four were associated with the New Citizens Movement, a loose network whose members held peaceful protests in Beijing last year, carrying banners calling for officials to disclose their assets as a measure against graft.

They were sentenced for “gathering a crowd to disturb public order,” Beijing's Haidian district court said on an official microblog. The charge has often been used to detain protesters.

Ding Jiaxi, a well-known human rights lawyer, was jailed for three-and-a-half years, while veteran activist Zhao Changqing was jailed for two-and-a-half years, the court said.

Fellow protesters Zhang Baocheng and Li Wei both received two-year sentences.

The verdicts come a week after Beijing's high court upheld a four-year sentence for Xu Zhiyong, a founder of the movement. Ten New Citizens Movement members have faced trial this year.

“The ruling is a warning and a threat,” Ge Yongxi, a lawyer for Zhang Baocheng told AFP, adding that his client complied with police requests to hand over his banners when the protests, involving a handful of activists, were curtailed.

“We think he's completely innocent, there is no legal basis for the court's ruling, and the punishment is too heavy,” Ge said, adding that his client will appeal.

The activists were jailed “because they asked for officials to expose their assets,” said Zhang Keke, a lawyer for Ding.

Zhang added that the court had violated regulations by not granting Ding an opportunity to express a demand to appeal the verdict after it was read out.

Police also detained six activists who traveled to Beijing to stand outside the court on Friday, fellow campaigner Wang Aizhong told AFP by phone.

Five diplomats attempting to attend the sentencings were barred from doing so, said Raphael Droszewski, a first secretary at the European Union's delegation to China.

He told AFP that the EU was concerned about the verdicts, adding that citizens were being “prosecuted for peacefully expressing their views.”

Security has been heavy outside New Citizens Movement trials, with media barred from standing near courthouses and police sometimes manhandling journalists and diplomats.

China's ruling Communist Party has repeatedly vowed to combat rampant official corruption, with President Xi Jinping threatening to target high-ranking “tigers” and low-level “flies” in the face of public anger over the issue.

But the party has cracked down on activists pursuing the same goals, viewing independently organized anti-corruption protests as a challenge to its tight grip on power.

New Citizens Movement members have said the wave of arrests, which began last year, have heavily curbed their activities.

At its peak the group had an estimated several hundred participants, who organized dinner discussions across China and pushed for legal and educational reforms.

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