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China Prosecutes Rights Activists Amid Holiday Distractions

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BEIJING (AP) — Chinese authorities are ramping up prosecutions of rights activists during the year-end holidays, apparently hoping the West will pay less attention to its wide-ranging crackdown on dissent that has drawn international criticism throughout the year.

In recent days, prosecutors and courts in various Chinese localities have moved to indict or prepare to put on trial several dissidents and activists in the coming weeks, according to more than half a dozen rights lawyers contacted by The Associated Press.

Some of the cases, pending for months, have suddenly picked up speed in the past several days, they said, perhaps in the hope of moving them to court while Western diplomats, rights groups, and China-based foreign reporters might be off-duty for the holidays.

"Most of the defense lawyers handling these cases feel that the momentum has increased," said one of the attorneys, Zhang Xuezhong. He said courts have been contacting lawyers and urging them to quickly process the necessary paperwork for their cases.

"I think they hope to hold the trial around Christmas and convict them before the Chinese New Year," Zhang said. The Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival as it is also known, starts Jan. 31.

This week, Chinese prosecutors in a southern city indicted activist Liu Yuandong for leading free-speech demonstrations outside a newspaper office in January that were sparked by a censorship dispute. Meanwhile, veteran dissident Zhang Lin stood trial Wednesday for April demonstrations at which dozens of people flocked to an eastern city to protest an elementary school for preventing his 10-year-old daughter from attending class.

In Beijing, a lawyer representing Xu Zhiyong, a prominent legal activist who founded the New Citizens Movement, a loose network of campaigners against corruption and for equal access to education, said he was told that Xu would be put on trial in late December. At least a half-dozen other activists associated with Xu's group were charged last week and were also expected to be tried this month, their lawyers said.

The office that oversees prosecutors nationwide did not immediately respond to a faxed list of questions about the timing of the legal proceedings.

The timing could be a coincidence, but rights lawyers and activists point to a precedent set by Chinese authorities in recent years of choosing the Christmas period to impose heavy prison sentences on well-known activists and dissidents. Among the most famous is now-Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, whose 11-year sentence for subversion was handed down on Christmas Day in 2009. Two activists in 2011 separately received nine and 10-year sentences around Christmas.

"The fact that Xu Zhiyong and others detained have been indicted recently suggests the same (harsh sentencing) might happen this year," said Maya Wang, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. "But however hard China tries, it can't hide the ugly fact that it is punishing individuals simply for exercising basic human rights and for calling an end to corruption."

This year, the activists have another thing in common: they have taken their causes to the street in protests that were mainly peaceful, small-scale and fleeting, but crossed a hard line that Chinese authorities have drawn. In most cases, the activists have been criminally charged with public disturbance, which carries a maximum penalty of five years' imprisonment.

"The authorities are suppressing any kind of street action," said Liu Xiaoyuan, the lawyer of Zhang Lin, the dissident whose pleas for his daughter to attend a school in Hefei city triggered an outpouring of anger online and drew crowds to the city. "They are worried that (the street protests) can spread widely to other cities or become a nationwide movement."

The crackdown on public assembly underscores how nervous the Communist Party leadership remains of organized action, however small. This year's prosecutions of activists and overall tightening of controls have been criticized by European and American officials, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who earlier this month expressed concern about Xu Zhiyong.

Xu's trial in Beijing and those associated with the network he founded will likely be the most closely watched, given his prominence both at home and abroad. The New Citizens campaigners have lobbied for rural migrant children to be able to attend city schools and for officials to declare their assets — down-to-earth issues that resonate with the public and make China's leaders worry about protests that could gain momentum and challenge Communist Party rule.

The network has organized small street protests and called for people to get together on the last Saturday of each month for dinner to discuss the constitution and other legal issues. In a testament to Xu's broad appeal, one of his key supporters is the well-known and wealthy venture capitalist Wang Gongquan, who has since also been arrested.

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Follow Gillian Wong on Twitter at twitter.com/gillianwong

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