Chinese court jails democracy activist for nine years
A Chinese court has sentenced a veteran democracy activist to nine years' imprisonment for inciting subversion, in the most severe punishment handed down in a crackdown on dissent this year.
Rights activist Chen Wei was convicted over four essays he wrote and published online, said his one of his lawyers, Liang Xiaojun. His wife said all the essays could only be viewed overseas because of firewall's in China's internet systems.
Chen was detained in February amid an expansive government crackdown in response to anonymous online calls urging Chinese to imitate protests in North Africa and the Middle East.
Liang said the trial at a court in the city of Suining in southwestern China lasted about two and a half hours and that the sentence was handed down 30 minutes after the trial concluded.
"We pleaded not guilty. He only wrote a few essays. We presented a full defence of the case, but we were interrupted often, and none of what we said was accepted by the court," Liang said.
Liang said that after the sentence was handed down, Chen said: "I protest, I am innocent. The governance of democracy must win, autocracy must die."
The sentence given to Chen, 42, appears to be the harshest penalty handed down in relation to this year's crackdown. Beijing activist Wang Lihong, who was detained in March was sentenced to nine months in jail in September for staging a protest on behalf of other activists.
Chen's wife Wang Xiaoyan decried the punishment.
"He is innocent and the punishment was too harsh. The court did not allow him to defend himself and his freedom of speech was completely deprived of," Wang said by phone. "What's wrong about a person freely expressing his ideas?"
Liang Xiaojun, the second lawyer who represented Chen at the trial, said the hearing lasted two and a half hours.
Chen's wife, Wang Xiaoyan, confirmed that Chen was jailed for nine years as punishment for nine essays that he had published on overseas Chinese websites.
"They downloaded all his essays from overseas, and you can't read any of them on websites inside China," Wang said in a telephone interview.
"But they still said that the essays had an extremely malign impact inside China, even though most people in China can't read them."
China uses a "firewall" of Internet filters and blocks to prevent citizens from reading websites abroad that are deemed to be politically unacceptable or socially unsound.
The sentence is the third-longest term ever handed down for inciting subversion after Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, who has been serving an 11-year sentence since 2009, and Liu Xianbin, who was jailed for 10 years in March this year.
Chen, 42, was one of hundreds of dissidents, rights activists and protest organisers swept up in a crackdown on dissent this year, when the ruling Communist Party sought to prevent potential protests inspired by anti-authoritarian uprisings across the Arab world.
Many of those detained have been released but remain under police watch. But officials appeared determined to "make an example" of Chen, said Huang Qi, a human rights advocate in Chen's home Sichuan province and a long-time friend of his.
"First, because he was convicted before, the court would certainly give a heavier sentence," said Huang, who added that Chen had been active in many campaigns that infuriated officials, including helping parents of children killed in schools that collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
"Other people have been released, but the Communist Party authorities always have one soft hand and one hard fist," said Huang. "The authorities will certainly mete out some heavy sentences to serve as a deterrent to others."
In September, Beijing-based activist Wang Lihong was jailed for nine months for "stirring up trouble", because she demonstrated outside a court to support three people on trial for maligning an official. She was later released.
China's party-run courts rarely find in favour of defendants in trials for political charges.
"I was mentally prepared for the verdict," said Chen's wife, Wang. "But it's too dark, not allowing people to speak out."