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A Chinese court sentenced a leading legal scholar and civil society activist to four years in jail today. Police have arrested around a dozen other members of his group called the New Citizens' movement.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The court found 40-year-old Xu Zhiyong guilty of assembling a crowd to disturb public order. This has to do with protests Xu had organized outside the Ministry of Education in 2012, pressing for migrants' equal access to education.

Prosecutors say the protesters obstructed police and made a racket. Xu's lawyer, Zhang Qingfang, says that's not true.

ZHANG QINGFANG: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: The protests were perfectly orderly, he says. The police couldn't find a single citizen who said the protests disturbed their lives.

Xu is a soft-spoken legal scholar and activist, who has campaigned for families of children sickened by tainted milk. He's spoken out for citizens caught in extra-legal detention centers. Most recently, he's called for officials to publicize their assets. When I last interviewed Xu in 2010, he explained how he avoids forming any group that might look like an opposition party, and he even tries not to let his opponents lose face.

XU ZHIYONG: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: We're already very moderate, very reasonable and constructive, he said. But beyond that, we try to consider how people whose points of view are different from ours see the issues. But in court, Xu read a closing statement that sounded like a political manifesto. In it, Xu calls on Chinese citizens to act like citizens, not like docile subjects. He says his bogus trial shows that authorities are afraid of the free society he's sure will come.

Xu's lawyer Zhang Qingfang says that the government just doesn't tolerate public displays of dissent.

QINGFANG: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: This is about street politics, he says. Maybe the police can tolerate some critical points of view. It is when you go beyond mere speech, and take to the streets to express your political opinions, that's something the government just can't accept.

Zhang adds that Xu's sentencing was scheduled before his trial had even begun. He says he'll ask his client whether he wants to appeal.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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