Chinese authorities have indicted veteran dissident Zhu Yufu on subversion charges for writing a poem urging people to gather to defend their freedoms, his lawyer said on Tuesday, the latest activist faced with such charges in a tightening clampdown.
The Foreign Ministry, however, stoutly defended China's human rights record, rejecting an assessment by U.S. ambassador Gary Locke that the human rights situation was deteriorating.
Such statements are not true, said Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told a regular briefing. The Chinese side attaches great importance to promoting and protecting the fundamental rights and interests of people of all ethnic groups, including the freedom of expression and of religion.
Locke made the statements at an interview with U.S. talk show host Charlie Rose on Monday.
As for some people who have dealt with the law, it's not because their freedom of expression and freedom of religion have been suppressed, Liu said. It's because they have violated Chinese laws and regulations and so should be punished by the law. It has nothing to do with so-called human rights.
Zhu, 60, from the eastern city of Hangzhou, was arrested last April for inciting subversion of state power, a charge often used against critics of the ruling Communist Party. No trial date has been set, the lawyer, Li Dunyong, said by telephone.
The main reason for the indictment was a poem he had written calling for people to gather. He had written the poem around the same time there was chaos (in the Middle East), Li said. He believes in the freedom of expression.
Li collected the indictment on Monday from a Hangzhou court and met Zhu. He described him as being in a good condition.
Calls to the Hangzhou Intermediate Court were unanswered.
The authorities disclosed the decision to prosecute Zhu nearly a year after he wrote the poem, entitled It's time.
A verse reads: It's time, Chinese people!/ The square belongs to everyone/the feet are yours/it's time to use your feet and take to the square to make a choice. Zhu's lawyer said the poem had been published on the Internet.
But Li said that Zhu had nothing to do with online calls for Jasmine Revolution rallies inspired by Middle East uprisings.
Police rounded up dozens of dissidents in response to the calls. The attempted rallies were tiny, with participants quickly outnumbered by hundreds of police and security guards.
Li said he would defend Zhu on the basis of freedom of expression, but believed prospects for victory looked bleak.
You can't be optimistic about anything in China, he said. In this country, he'll be punished harshly.
The Communist Party is preparing for a leadership handover late this year, when its determination to fend off political challenges to its rule is likely to intensify.
Chinese courts meted out lengthy sentences to two other dissidents in December on subversion charges.
Like both dissidents, Zhu has been jailed twice before for pro-democracy activism -- in 1999 for seven years and in 2007 for two years, according to the Chinese Human Rights Defenders.
Activist artist Ai Weiwei, whose 81-day detention last year sparked an international outcry, said he was interrogated for five hours on Sunday for throwing stones at and making a rude gesture to surveillance cameras outside his home.
Police told Ai that he had to be questioned because he was suspected of damaging public property, Ai said by telephone.
Ai said the stones did not hit the 10 cameras outside his house and he did not think he would face charges.
They said to me: 'This is a warning because you have to behave', Ai said. I said: 'I'll behave. I take your warning seriously. But I'm human, I have to show my attitude. It's just a gesture. You're so powerful, how can I destroy you?'
A third dissident, Hu Jia, said he was taken in for questioning on Tuesday, as has happened several times since police raided his home and took two computers.
Hu said police investigators asked about his motives for urging citizens to seek the freedom of detained rights advocates Chen Guangcheng and Gao Zhisheng.
I think they were exploring my views to see what I'm planning to do this year, he said. They told my wife I could be regularly questioned. I think it's a kind of pressure to ensure my silence.
(Additional reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Ken Wills and Ron Popeski)