In this July 17, 2009, photo, legal scholar Xu Zhiyong, center, walks past Chinese lawyers, Jiang Tianyong, right, and Yang Huiwen, second from left, after a meeting at a restaurant in Beijing. The prominent Chinese legal activist Xu, who founded a group that promotes civil society, was indicted Dec. 13, 2013 by Beijing prosecutors and will likely stand trial soon, his lawyer Zhang Qingfang said. (Greg Baker/AP)

Four days after the U.S. government expressed concern about his imprisonment, Chinese prosecutors have filed charges in court against leading activist Xu Zhiyong, his attorney said Friday.

Xu, a legal scholar, founded the New Citizens Movement, a loose network of activists seeking to promote the rule of law and human rights in China. In March and April, several members unfurled banners in Beijing demanding that Communist Party officials publicly disclose their assets, and many have since been arrested as part of a broad crackdown on dissent under President Xi Jinping.

Beijing police filed their case with the prosecutor’s office on Dec. 6, alleging that Xu had disturbed public order by organizing the demonstrations, according to lawyer Zhang Qingfang. He said the authorities seemed to be in a hurry to deal with the case.

“Normally, in a case like this, with 1,000 pages of material, it takes the prosecutor’s office 11 / months to go over it” and file charges, he said. “I’m very surprised they handled it this fast. It is neither reasonable nor normal. It looks like it is just for show, and on orders from a higher level.”

Zhang said he was informed that charges were filed by the prosecutor’s office but had not seen the written charge sheet. He said a charge of disturbing public order carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison. An official in the prosecutor’s office declined to comment.

Shortly after his arrest in July, Xu released a video from prison vowing to pay any price for “freedom, public interest and love” and urging Chinese citizens to unite to promote “democracy, rule of law and justice.” His friend and fellow member of the movement, leading entrepreneur Wang Gongquan, was arrested in September and is expected to be tried separately, said activist Chen Min. Authorities apparently want to avoid one large trial at which all the dissidents could stand together, Chen said.

On Monday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said the U.S. government was “deeply concerned” about the arrests of activists, including Xu and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, “for peacefully exercising their universal right to freedom of expression.”

China’s Foreign Ministry rejected Kerry’s appeal for the activists’ release, arguing that Liu and Xu had violated Chinese laws and implying that Xu’s conviction was a foregone conclusion.

“They deserve to be punished by law,” spokesman Hong Lei said at a routine news conference Tuesday. “I need to emphasize that only the 1.3 billion Chinese people are best qualified to pass judgment over China’s human rights condition.”

The nationalist Global Times newspaper also criticized Kerry’s comments in an editorial Wednesday. “The U.S., in hopes of seeing China’s legal system crashed by the combined force of globalization and the Internet, is labeling extremist views of activists in the country as free speech,” it said.

Liu was detained in December 2008, convicted of subversion the following year and sentenced to 11 years in prison for writing an appeal for democracy. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.

Liu Liu contributed to this report.