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BEIJING (Reuters) - A filmmaker who made a documentary on China's constitutional governance will stand trial on charges of "illegal business activity", raising questions about Beijing's promise to uphold the rule of law in accordance with the constitution.
Shen Yongping will be the first person prosecuted for documenting China's constitutional history in a film called "100 years of constitutional governance", his lawyer, Zhang Xuezhong, told Reuters in a telephone interview on Monday.
The trial comes at a time of increased optimism among some Chinese scholars about Beijing's willingness to enforce the supervision of China's Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression.
But Shen's detention and other arrests have eroded some of that optimism. Chinese intellectuals and international rights groups have denounced President Xi Jinping's administration for the worst suppression of human rights in years.
The film is about "the Chinese people's pursuit of constitutionalism from the time of the Qing dynasty till the present day, and their failed experiences," Zhang said, adding that he will argue the eight-episode documentary is not illegal.
The 33-year-old Shen has been held at Beijing's Chaoyang District Detention Centre since late April, Zhang said.
Police had warned Shen during the filming that if he persisted in making the documentary, he would "definitely go to prison", according to Zhang.
Police in Beijing were not immediately available for comment.
Shen will be tried on Nov. 4 in a court in Beijing, Zhang said. If convicted of engaging in "illegal business activity", he could be sentenced to five years or more in prison.
The documentary "does not constitute a crime" because Shen never engaged in any business or made any profit from his film, Zhang said, adding that Shen will plead not guilty.
"This accusation is extremely absurd. 'Illegal business activity' has now become another tactic for them to conduct their political suppression," Zhang said.
Shen had raised over 100,000 yuan ($16,354) to make this documentary from individual supporters on Weibo, China's version of Twitter, and had intended to make the documentary for them, Zhang said.
The film was released on Weibo sometime around April or May, according to his lawyer. He also made 1,000 DVD sets, but they had been confiscated by the police.
Shen previously wrote a book on the nationalists' cooperation and subsequent struggles with the Communist Party. The nationalists, known as the Kuomintang party, retreated to Taiwan after losing the Chinese civil war in 1949.
On Oct. 23, China's Communist Party said it would improve the supervision of the constitution under the National People's Congress, the country's parliament.
On Monday, the official Xinhua news agency said Dec. 4 will be designated National Constitution Day, which is supposed to remind people that "no organization or individual shall have the privilege of being placed above the constitution".
But international rights groups said these claims ring hollow, given the recent crackdown on freedom of expression.
"The arrest of Shen is a signal from the government," said Maya Wang from the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch. "Through these arrests, the government is making clear that the 'rule of law' should be understood as an instrument for the state to maintain its monopoly of power, not as a force to rein in arbitrary state power."
Last week, police in Beijing charged Tie Liu, an 81-year-old writer, with "illegal business activity" after he criticised China's former and present leaders in essays.
In July, Chinese prosecutors slapped the same charge on Chang Boyang, a lawyer working for a non-government organization.
Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based political commentator interviewed by Shen for the documentary, said Shen's prosecution signifies that the present government "just wants to eliminate all opinions".
"In reality, it is difficult for citizens to get guarantees for freedom of speech," he said. "So what constitutional governance is there to talk about?"
Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Ryan Woo