BEIJING (AP) — A prominent Chinese legal activist who founded a group that organized small, peaceful protests and dinners to discuss politics was indicted Friday by Beijing prosecutors and will likely stand trial soon, his lawyer said.
The lawyer, Zhang Qingfang, said city prosecutors told him that they formally charged Xu Zhiyong on Friday, and that he expected the case would go to trial shortly. Calls to Beijing prosecutors and courts rang unanswered.
Xu founded the New Citizens Movement, a loose network of activists who have gathered in various cities around the country for political discussions over dinner and have held small street rallies to urge officials to disclose their assets.
His arrest in late August highlighted a wide-ranging crackdown by the authoritarian government on peaceful expression and underscored how unnerved the country's leaders are by independent collective action.
Zhang said he had not seen the indictment notice but believed that prosecutors were likely to pursue charges of "organizing a crowd to disrupt order in a public place." He said that when he saw Xu last week, he had maintained his innocence and said he was prepared to defend his actions in court.
The vaguely worded charge has been used in many recent cases by authorities to prosecute activists who have staged small demonstrations to air critical views. Xu's supporters say it's a trumped-up charge aimed at putting away a moderate voice perceived by the Communist Party as a threat because of his public appeal and ability to mobilize.
Zhang Kun, 26, a Beijing-based former advertising executive who is part of the movement, said he had been inspired by Xu's idealism when he first spoke to him two years ago.
Zhang said the movement Xu founded also appealed because it sought to address timely issues in a low-key way that resonated with ordinary people.
"Xu Zhiyong is a person with great ideals. His study of law led him to believe in fairness and justice," Zhang said. "In order to enable more people to participate such that anyone can be an activist, he built 'New Citizens' as a low-intensity movement. The things that it seeks are in the people's vital interest."
Beijing police recommended last week that prosecutors charge Xu for allegedly organizing street demonstrations over the past year and in 2012.
Earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed concern about Xu's detention. Responding to Kerry's comments before Xu was formally charged, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman indicated that Xu's conviction was a foregone conclusion, saying he had violated the country's laws and deserved to be punished.
Chen Min, a close friend of Xu's, said Xu's prosecution reflects the contradictions the party faces in wanting to protect one-party rule while appearing to be responding to public demands for greater government accountability and a fairer legal system.
"No matter how they struggle, they are in a dilemma," Chen, a journalist who writes under the pen name Xiao Shu, said in a recent opinion piece. "They want the dictatorship, but they want to be seen as having the rule of law. They care about their image while they desire to persecute. They want everything, but that's a mission impossible."
Chen said he hoped Xu's trial would be open to the public and free from political intervention. "Xu and his lawyers must be given the right to defend him in an open court, or it would be a wrongful case to be cursed forever," Chen said in a phone interview.
Associated Press writer Didi Tang contributed to this report.