Legal scholar and activist Xu Zhiyong has been sentenced to four years in prison by a Chinese court for ‘gathering a crowd to disturb order in a public place'.

Xu (pictured) has been been detained in Beijing since July for his involvement in transparency movement the New Citizens Group and faced a maximum five-year sentence. Several other activists from the group are facing similar charges. 

The profession has called for Xu’s immediate release.

Frances Swaine, managing partner and at Human Rights firm Leigh Day, said: ‘The health of any society can be gauged by the right of the individual to speak truth to power and a judiciary that would protect these rights. Therefore the conviction of Xu Zhiyong can only lead to the assumption that it still suffers from a chronic tendency to human rights abuses.

‘We can only hope that his conviction will only muzzle the New Citizens Group temporarily, as China needs to have these abuses fully investigated as it becomes a more dominant world power.’

Roseann Rife, Amnesty International’s East Asia research director, said the sentence was a ‘shameful but sadly predictable verdict’.

She said: ‘The Chinese authorities have once again opted for the rule of fear over the rule of law.’ 

Brad Adams, Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, said: ‘The harsh sentence for a moderate critic who reflected widespread public concern about corruption shows just how little tolerance there is towards dissent in China today.  

‘[President] Xi Jinping has made fighting corruption the linchpin of his presidency, but when an average citizen takes up the same cause, he is sent to prison. This hypocrisy makes a mockery of the president’s anti-corruption campaign.’