A Chinese court on Sunday sentenced anti-corruption activist Xu Zhiyong to four years in jail.

The Beijing court found Mr. Xu guilty of “gathering a crowd to disturb public order”, referring to public gatherings held in 2013 by members of the anti-corruption New Citizens Movement, which Mr. Xu helped establish, who had waged a campaign to call for the Communist Party to force its officials to declare their assets.

Mr. Xu denied the charges in a closing statement he delivered to the court. “We did nothing to disrupt public order, we were merely exercising our freedom of expression as provided for by the constitution,” he said, according to a copy of his prepared remarks.

In a lengthy closing statement, Mr. Xu said that by suppressing the New Citizens Movement, the government was “obstructing China on its path to becoming a constitutional democracy through peaceful change”.

His lawyer said Mr. Xu was not allowed to deliver the full statement in court, and was interrupted by the judge, who said his remarks were not relevant to the case.

The charges stem from gatherings held in 2013 by Mr. Xu and other members of the movement, who had posed in public places in various Chinese cities displaying banners calling on officials to declare their assets.

“While on the face of it,” Mr. Xu told the court, “This appears to be an issue of the boundary between a citizen’s right to free speech and public order, what this is, in fact, is the issue of whether or not you recognise a citizen’s constitutional rights.”

“On a still deeper level," he said, "This is actually an issue of fears you all carry within: fear of a public trial, fear of a citizen’s freedom to observe a trial, fear of my name appearing online, and fear of the free society nearly upon us.”

“Public order was not disrupted as a result of our actions, which infringed on the legitimate rights of no one."

Mr. Xu is the most well-known face of the movement, which took off in 2012 through informal dinner meetings. The movement attracted a following of a few thousand people – a small number in the context of China’s 1.3 billion population, yet significant enough to concern the authorities, who have, in recent months, detained more than a dozen activists associated with the movement.

One likely reason for the movement’s appeal was its specific demand on making public the assets of officials, an issue that has wide resonance in China, where even the ruling Communist Party has admitted that rampant graft had stirred public anger.

The meetings attracted a range of followers, from students to white-collar professionals and lawyers. When the movement took to the streets with members displaying banners to raise awareness, it was always likely to incur the wrath of the authorities, who began detaining and arresting protesters.

In October 2013, billionaire entrepreneur Wang Gongquan was detained over his involvement with the movement. Then in December, three activists, who had unfurled banners in southern Jiangxi province, were put on trial. Last week, six other activists stood trial, including five people in Beijing and one in southern Guangzhou.

Mr. Xu was a well-known lawyer before his involvement with the movement. His legal firm, Gongmeng or the Open Constitution Initiative, had established a national reputation for pioneering work after it successfully took on a number of sensitive cases, even winning praise from State media.

Gongmeng brought about significant legal reforms when it took up the case of a 27-year-old graduate student, who was beaten to death in police custody in Guangzhou, where he had been detained for not carrying identification papers. The government subsequently overhauled custody laws.

Mr. Xu later represented victims of milk poisoning. He had also campaigned for the rights of migrant workers, specifically pushing for reforms of discriminatory household registration or hukou laws that deny their children access to education in city schools.

Gongmeng was subsequently forced to shut down in 2009, when it was accused of tax fraud. Its members, however, said then that the government had wanted to clamp down on what it saw as legal activism.

Explaining the motivations of the anti-corruption movement in his closing speech, Mr. Xu told the court that corruption had “become more and more rampant over the course of the last sixty some years”.

“Without democratic elections, press freedom and judicial independence, a clean government is not possible under a regime of absolute power," he said.

“In a servile society prone widely to submission, there will always need to be someone to be the first to stand up, to face the risks and pay the price for social progress. We are those Chinese people ready now to stand, with utmost concern for the future and destiny of the motherland, for democratic rule of law, justice, and for the dignity and well-being of the weak and marginalised.”

Mr. Xu concluded: “Here in absurd post-totalitarian China I stand trial, charged with three crimes: promoting equal education rights for children of migrant workers, calling on officials to publicly disclose their assets, and advocating that all people behave as citizens with pride and conscience”.

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