BEIJING - Three Chinese anti-graft activists who agitated for officials to disclose their assets went on trial on Monday in the first case of its kind, underscoring the limits of government tolerance of challenges to its authority.
Despite an official drive against corruption, China has detained at least 15 activists in recent months who were involved in a campaign pushing for officials to disclose their wealth.
Rights groups describe the detentions as the first major crackdown against activists by the new government. The trial of Liu Ping, Li Sihua and Wei Zhongping is the first prosecution of anti-graft activists.
The three were detained in late April in Xinyu, in the poor, landlocked southern province of Jiangxi, and accused of illegal assembly. They face a maximum of five years in prison if convicted.
Officials in Xinyu could not be reached for comment.
Zhang Xuezhong, one of two lawyers defending Liu, said police had tried to prevent the legal defence teams from entering the court in the morning, though the court intervened and they were eventually allowed in.
"All three are pleading not guilty," Zhang told Reuters by telephone from outside the court, adding he was not optimistic about the case given its sensitivity.
The three are involved in the New Citizens Movement, which advocates working within the system to press for change. Its founder, the prominent activist Xu Zhiyong, was arrested in August.
Wang Cheng, a lawyer friend of the three who is not directly involved in the case, said he believed the government was trying to send a message that it would not tolerate the activities of rights groups.
"They're using this case to warn others, to bring these activities under control," Wang said. "It shows how nervous they are."