A leading rights activist who organized rallies for media freedom went on trial Friday in a southern Chinese city for disturbing public order, more than 15 months after he was detained by police.
Zhang Lei, lawyer for Yang Maodong, said on his microblog that Yang’s trial at Tianhe District Court got off to a tense start when the court several times cut off arguments by the defense.
A court employee declined to confirm the trial against Yang, but he said a “special case” was taking place, without further elaboration. Rights lawyers and advocates said security was heavy around the courthouse and stretched as far as 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) out.
Yang’s trial comes amid a broadening crackdown on dissent by Beijing, which is increasingly intolerant of any form of activism. In January, a Beijing court sentenced legal activist Xu Zhiyong to four years in prison for leading a loosely organized civil movement. Several of his followers also were imprisoned.
Yang, 48, better known by his penname Guo Feixiong, is a veteran activist who advocates greater political freedom and more civic engagement in China.
In January 2013, Yang helped organize demonstrations and spoke in support of the editorial staff at the newspaper Southern Weekly in Guangzhou after its journalists said a New Year’s message that called for rule by the constitution was altered because of censorship.
Yang is charged with gathering crowds to disrupt public order. His supporters say the rallies were orderly. Standing trial with Yang was Sun Desheng, who unfurled banners calling for public disclosure of officials’ assets and urging China’s legislature to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Both have denied guilt.
New York-based Human Rights Watch called on authorities to drop the charges and release them both.
“Beijing’s assault on civil society seems to know no bounds as peaceful activists are increasingly subject to criminal prosecutions,” said Sophie Richardson, the group’s China director, in a statement.
“At what point will the Chinese government realize individuals like Guo Feixiong and Sun Desheng are allies in strengthening the rule of law, not enemies of the state?”