Prominent Chinese lawyer and lecturer Xu Zhiyong stood trial in Beijing on Wednesday after he was arrested last July on charges of ‘gathering people to disturb order in a public place’ and, as western diplomats have been barred from attending trial, unsurprisingly, petitioners and reporters were equally unwelcome outside of the court room, some journalists even describing being harassed and ‘roughed up’ by police.
Security around the No 1 Intermediate Court in Beijing remained severely tight, Sky News reports, with heavy police presence and plain-clothed security officials circled around the courtroom during Xu’s trial.
Xu, 41, is one of the founders of the New Citizens’ movement. In May 2012, he published an online article calling for the promotion of government transparency and exposure of corruption. The cause gained a large enough following to attract the attention of the government and several other lawyers, academics and activists who participated in the movement have also been detained.
Washington Post reports that members of the New Citizens’ Movement paced about outside of the court in an attempt show support for Xu, but struggled communicating their message due to strong police presence and fears of being arrested.
“We want him to know that we stand with him, and that we will continue his work,” one interviewer said to Post reporters in a later interview.
Western diplomats from at least 15 countries tried to attend Xu’s trial in a show of support, according to two of them. But they were instead sequestered in a separate room. Police pushed foreign journalists away from the courthouse, at times using violence, and forced many to delete video and pictures they had taken.
A handful of New Citizens’ Movement members looked on but did not dare approach the foreign media, they said later in interviews, for fear police would identify them.
They had smuggled a large red banner into Beijing from one member’s home that repeated Xu’s demand for public disclosure of assets. With police on every corner, though, the activists were afraid to unfurl the flag themselves. So they handed it to a large group of petitioners who had also shown up to support Xu.
Here, a BBC report outside of the court was interrupted more than once by undercover “thugs” shooing journalists away from the area. Sky News’ China correspondent Mark Stone shared a similar experience.
Likewise with CNN reporter David McKenzie was blocked from going near the court.
Xu’s lawyer Zhang Qingfeng told reporters that he and his client had remained silent in protest throughout the court proceedings.
“We don’t want to take part in a piece of theatre, we are not actors, we can’t act,” he told Agence France-Presse. “The court tried to persuade Xu to speak … and spent 10 minutes trying to persuade the lawyers to speak … we will continue to remain silent.”
Xu is still awaiting trial verdict and faces a possible five-year prison sentence.