Chinese human rights lawyer gets suspended sentence over social media posts
A Chinese lawyer is expected to be freed after a Beijing court gave him a suspended jail sentence after finding him guilty in a case involving online comments critical of the ruling Communist Party.
The court found Pu Zhiqiang guilty of provoking troubles and inciting ethnic hatred, and sentenced him to three years in prison but said the sentence will be suspended for three years.
Still, the guilty verdict disqualifies Pu from practising law, and he must comply with certain restrictions and not commit crimes during the three-year period or risk being jailed.
Human rights group Amnesty International welcomed the suspended sentence but condemned the fact that the prominent lawyer was found guilty.
"Clearly it is positive that Pu Zhiqiang is unlikely to spend another night in jail, yet that cannot hide the gross injustice against him," said William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International.
"He is no criminal and this guilty verdict effectively shackles one of China's bravest champions of human rights from practising law."
The verdict also stirred mixed feelings from Pu's supporters, who were celebrating his pending release but also argue it was an injustice to find him guilty.
"After all, an innocent man has been locked up for 19 months. Under the suspended sentence, he finally can get out," said supporter Ren Jianyu.
"It's good news but with a feeling of helplessness."
Pu's supporters believe the case was politically driven to punish the outspoken lawyer who has become a leading figure among China's rights defence lawyers.
Pu was active in defending free speech and represented Ai Weiwei in a tax evasion case that the artist's supporters said was politically motivated.
He also was instrumental in pushing for the eventual abolishment of the labour camp system, which allowed police to lock up people for up to four years without a trial.
Since coming to power in 2013, President Xi Jinping has spearheaded crackdowns on civil activists, rights lawyers and online freedom of expression, in moves aimed at snuffing out any potential threats to the Communist Party's grip on power.
Pu was detained shortly after attending a May 2014 meeting to discuss commemorating 25 years since the Tiananmen Square massacre, at a time when authorities were keeping a lid on any public commemorations of the event.
Hundreds, possibly thousands, of protesters were killed in the crackdown, and the topic remains taboo in China.
After a prolonged investigation, Pu stood trial on December 14 - more than 19 months after his detention - for several of his online comments that questioned Beijing's ethnic policies and poked fun at some political figures.
In one comment, Pu urged Beijing not to treat the ethnic region of Xinjiang as a colony and act as a conqueror and looter.
In another, Pu questioned why there were bloody incidents involving the Muslim minority of Uighurs when Beijing kept touting how great its ethnic policies are.
He also derided a veteran delegate to the national congress known for her six decades of never casting a dissenting vote.
Today, hundreds of police barred foreign journalists from approaching the court. About a dozen diplomats who showed up in an attempt to watch the verdict being delivered said they were turned away on the grounds the courtroom was full.
At least one supporter who rallied outside the court was hauled away by police.