(Adds comments from Chinese foreign ministry in paragraph 13)
By Sui-Lee Wee
BEIJING, April 11 (Reuters) - A prominent Chinese rights activist expressed defiance on Friday after a court upheld his four-year jail sentence, saying the pall of communism and dictatorship would eventually give way to freedom and justice.
The ruling sparked fresh criticism from the United States, European Union and rights groups, though it had been expected as China's courts are controlled by the Communist Party and almost never rule in favour of dissidents.
"This ridiculous judgment cannot hold back the tide of human progress," Xu Zhiyong told the court loudly after the verdict was read out, his lawyers told Reuters.
"The haze of the communist dictatorship must eventually lift and the light of freedom, fairness, justice and love will eventually fill China," he added.
He was jailed in January after being found guilty of "gathering a crowd to disturb public order".
The government has waged a year-long drive against Xu's "New Citizens' Movement", which advocates working within the system to press for change.
Hundreds of citizens have participated in activities related to the movement, according to rights advocates, who say Xu's case is a warning from the Communist Party that it will crush any challenge to its rule, especially from those who seek to organise campaigns.
One of Xu's lawyers, Zhang Qingfang, said he was unsurprised by the verdict, and called the reasons offered by the court "extremely ridiculous".
"Xu Zhiyong created a path for citizens to push for social progress within the legal framework because he has always been against the past revolutionary practices of overthrowing or subverting (the system) to promote society's progress," Zhang said.
Xu's wife and elder sister were escorted to the hearing by state security officers, Zhang said. A Western diplomat said police officers shoved several diplomats who tried to approach the courthouse.
The United States is "deeply disappointed" by the court's decision, Nolan Barkhouse, spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Beijing, said.
"We call on Chinese authorities to release Xu and other political prisoners immediately, remove restrictions on their freedom of movement and guarantee them the protections and freedoms to which they are entitled under China's international human rights commitments," Barkhouse said.
Raphael Droszewski, a first secretary at the European Union delegation to China, said the ruling was "a very bad sign in terms of the willingness of the Chinese authorities to implement their commitments to fight corruption and to more transparency".
Asked about the West's criticism of the verdict against Xu, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a daily news briefing that "the relevant ruling was made in accordance with the law by Chinese judicial authorities."
Through his online essays and account on social media site Twitter, Xu pushed for officials to disclose assets and fought for the rights of children from rural areas to be educated in cities, where many live with their migrant worker parents.
His calls encouraged several activists to assemble and unfurl banners in public places.
"As the leading member, Xu Zhiyong's actions constituted a criminal act of gathering a crowd to disturb public order and should be punished according to the law," the court said in the verdict statement that was seen by Reuters.
While President Xi Jinping has made battling corruption a priority, authorities have shown no sign of agreeing to demands for such disclosures by all officials.
Wary of any organised challenge to the Chinese Communist Party's rule, Xi's administration has ratcheted up pressure on dissent. It has clamped down on critics on the Internet and tightened curbs on journalists.
China has detained or jailed at least 20 activists involved in pressing for asset disclosure by officials, although not all are from the New Citizens' Movement.
Three activists stood trial this week in Beijing and two were convicted in January.
China "must end this merciless persecution of all those associated with the New Citizens Movement", William Nee, China Researcher at Amnesty International, said in a statement.
Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group, said the cases against the New Citizens Movement members "are part of one of the largest crackdowns against dissent and free expression in recent years".
(Additional reporting by Maxim Duncan and Ben Blanchard, Editing by Ben Blanchard, Clarence Fernandez and Simon Cameron-Moore)