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BEIJING (Reuters) - Three Chinese activists agitating for officials to disclose their assets will be put on trial, their lawyers said on Tuesday, in a coordinated crackdown that underscores the limits of an anti-corruption push by the new government.
China has detained at least 15 activists in recent months who were involved in a campaign pushing for officials to publicly disclose their wealth in what rights groups describe as the first major crackdown by the new government on activists.
The move to put the anti-corruption activists on trial has raised fears that an official campaign of reprisals has begun.
Liu Ping, Li Sihua and Wei Zhongping were detained in late April in Xinyu in the 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.
The ascendancy of Xi Jinping as Communist Party chief in a once-in-a-decade generational leadership transition last November had given many Chinese hope for political reform, spurring citizens to push officials to disclose their wealth in several movements throughout the country.
But the charges against the activists are a strong indication that the Communist Party will not tolerate any open challenge to its rule under Xi, even as it claims more transparency.
Xi, who became president in March, has called for a crackdown on graft, warning, as many have before him, that the problem is so severe it could threaten the party's survival.
Encouraged by Xi's calls for more transparency, the activists took photographs of themselves holding banners and placards that said: "Strongly urge officials to disclose their assets" and "Xi Jinping, immediately end dictatorship".
The pictures were widely circulated online.
Li Sihua's lawyer, Pang Kun, said he expected authorities to set a date for the trial soon and it could come as early as next week. A hearing was initially set for Thursday but postponed by the authorities without explanation.
Pang said Li was innocent.
"Their actions were very simple - a few people gathered to eat a meal and then they took a photograph," Pang told Reuters by telephone. "This doesn't constitute an assembly."
Lawyers said the charge of illegal assembly requires police officers or government officials to disperse the group, which did not happen in the activists' case.
Liu Ping's lawyer, Zheng Jianwei, called the charge against Liu "absurd".
"Xi Jinping isn't the emperor, he's just a president, a head of state," Zheng said. "Is it a crime to mention Xi Jinping's name in an appeal, in a citizen's expression of her aspirations? This is a feudal society."
There have been a few pilot schemes for low-level officials in China's southern Guangdong province to disclose their assets, but the efforts have made little progress and discussion of the wealth of senior leaders like Xi remain firmly off limits.
Authorities first accused Liu of "gathering to disturb social order", then "inciting subversion of state power", and later "illegal assembly" - proof the government's move against the activists was out of retaliation, Zheng said.
A third lawyer involved in the case, who declined to be identified for fear of retribution, said the move to try the activists was "unconstitutional".
"There is no legal basis for it," the lawyer said. "This case is a sensitive one, the central government is paying close attention to it. If we tell you more, we will come under a lot of pressure."
Additional reporting by Beijing Newsroom; Editing by Robert Birsel