Authorities in southern China have sentenced a pastor of an unofficial Protestant "house church" to two-and-a-half years in jail on spying charges, his lawyer said.
Pastor Yang Hua of the Huoshi church in the southern province of Guizhou was handed the jail term by the Nanming District People's Court in the provincial capital Guiyang on Wednesday.
Yang Hua, who is also known as Li Guozhi, was initially detained during a raid on Huoshi Church on Dec. 9, 2015, by police who searched his apartment, confiscating computers, disks, and other devices.
His lawyers have accused local prosecutors of torturing Yang in prison and have filed a lawsuit against the officers.
Defense attorney Chen said the sentence was undeserved, and that his client is innocent.
"Even a day in jail is too much for an innocent person," he told RFA. "I have only one thing to say about this. This isn't a judgement: it's persecution."
"This is a political case that has nothing to do with the law or the truth," Chen said. "This is political persecution pure and simple."
Fellow Huoshi pastor Su Tianfu said the sentence was outrageous and disproportionate, and that the church is now basically dispersed amid an ongoing government crackdown targeting its pastors and followers.
"I think Yang Hua is innocent, and yet they have locked him up for such a long time," said Su, who was himself detained on similar charges but later released on "bail."
"From a legal point of view, the charges against pastor Yang just don't stand up," he said. "How could he have revealed any state secrets?"
"But there's very little we can do about it," he said. "This is a case of political interference, and I think we can say that the law isn't being followed here."
Huoshi accountant Zhang Xiuhong is also being held and is currently awaiting trial, he said.
Yang's wife Wang Hongwu said she learned about the sentencing on Thursday, saying that her husband will likely appeal the sentence, but that he has yet to be allowed a visit from his lawyer.
"They tell me that a meeting isn't possible right now, according to the lawyer," Wang said. "If he is appealing after a sentence, then they can't meet with a lawyer."
"The lawyer may be able to meet with him in about 10 days' time," she said.
Wang told RFA after her husband's Dec. 27 trial that he could only walk with assistance from detention center guards when he was visited by his lawyer.
"I asked why his feet hurt and they said it was to do with the weather, but we don't know the reason," she said.
Bob Fu, founder of the U.S.-based Christian rights group ChinaAid, hit out at the sentence.
"This is nothing but purely barbaric religious persecution," Fu said in a statement on the group's website.
"We urge President Obama and president-elect Trump to unequivocally condemn this brutal act," he said.
China is home to an estimated 68 million Protestants, of whom 23 million worship in state-affiliated churches, and some nine million Catholics, 5.7 million of whom are in state-sponsored organizations.
But the ruling Chinese Communist Party, which embraces atheism, exercises tight controls over any form of religious practice among its citizens.
And the administration of President Xi Jinping regards Christianity as a dangerous foreign import, with officials warning last year against the "infiltration of Western hostile forces" in the form of religion.
A crackdown on Protestant churches in the eastern province of Zhejiang widened and intensified to other regions of China during 2016, church members have told RFA.
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated by Luisetta Mudie.