BEIJING (AP) — A Beijing court Friday upheld a four-year prison term for the founder of a Chinese grassroots movement to promote clean governance, drawing criticism and calls for his release from rights groups and the U.S. government.
The prosecutions of Xu Zhiyong and others in his loosely knit New Citizens movement were part of a clampdown by authorities on any movement that could challenge the Communist Party's monopoly on power, even though Xu's demands are in line with the party's stated goals, such as curbing corruption and providing equal education opportunities.
The Beijing Supreme People's Court ruled that the lower trial court's verdict in January was correct in finding Xu guilty of gathering crowds to disturb public order and sentencing him to four years in prison.
Amnesty International called the rejection of Xu's appeal "an affront to justice" and called for his release, as did the U.S. government.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. was "deeply disappointed over the verdict. She described it as "retribution for his public campaign to expose official corruption and for the peaceful expression of his views."
Xu prosecution is part of a deepening pattern of arrests of lawyers, activists, journalists and religious leaders who challenge Chinese policies and actions, Psaki said, calling for their immediate release.
China's Foreign Ministry responded that, "China is a country under rule of law. Everybody is equal before the law. The ruling was handed down by Chinese judicial authorities according to the law."
Xu, a legal scholar, has insisted that all activism be done within the limits of the law, and he purposely kept the group formless to seek room in China despite the party's intolerance of independent organizations beyond its control.
His fledgling campaign to promote citizen rights drew a clampdown after it inspired people across the country to gather for dinner parties to discuss social issues and occasionally to unfurl banners in public places in small rallies.
Xu's criminal offense largely stemmed from several rallies he organized in front of the Education Ministry to demand equal education rights. The group members argued the rallies did not disrupt any public business nor create any disorder.
In a statement Friday, Xu told the court that the "absurd verdict will not stop the tide of progress in human history."
"The authoritarian smog is bound to disperse, and the sun rays of freedom, justice and love will shine on China," Xu said, according to his lawyer Zhang Qingfang.
Beijing has tried several of the movement's followers on the same charge since late 2013, including Ding Jiaxi, Li Wei, Zhang Baocheng and Zhao Changqing this week. Verdicts will be announced later, but guilty verdicts are expected.
Followers and supporters of the New Citizens movement on Friday condemned the prosecutions, and posted a statement on the group's website faulting the judges for their verdict. "It is the judges and decision makers who have insulted the law and the good conscience," the statement said. "Now they have judged citizens, but history will judge them."
New York-based Human Rights Watch has urged Beijing to drop the cases against New Citizens members.
"If Chinese authorities insist that these people's peaceful civic activism constitutes a threat to public order, it's hard to tell what doesn't," said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.
A brief statement by the Beijing court system said the appellate court found the facts were clear and evidence sufficient in Xu's case. It said the original conviction was precise and the punishment was proper.
Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.