Authorities in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong on Friday handed down jail terms of up to five years to the "Guangzhou Three" rights activists for subversion, after they sought to launch a civil disobedience campaign to protect human rights.
The Guangzhou Intermediate People's Court sentenced former rights lawyer Tang Jingling to five years' imprisonment, while fellow activists Wang Qingying and Yuan Xinting were handed sentences of two-and-a-half and three-and-a-half years respectively.
All three had been found guilty of "incitement to subvert state power."
"I think that this sentence by the [ruling] Chinese Communist Party and the Guangzhou Intermediate People's Court is an extreme error of judgment that nonetheless recognizes the contribution of Tang Jingling to the democracy movement in China," Tang's lawyer Ge Yongxi told RFA after the verdict and sentencing hearing.
"Tang Jingling has said that he won't be appealing, because he says the judicial system under the Chinese Communist Party has no legitimacy," Ge said. "He said he will appeal to the people of China, and to God, instead."
Tang's wife Wang Yanfang said she respects her husband's decision not to lodge an appeal.
"I respect his choice, because we all know that they are all [three of them] innocent, and the court and the prosecutors know that very well, and yet they still locked them all up for more than a year," Wang said.
"The trial itself wasn't legal; courts should be fair and reasonable places, but they aren't any more," she said. "So really it makes no difference whether they appeal or not; it's meaningless."
Wang said around 10 family members were allowed to attend the sentencing hearing.
Asked how her husband looked after more than a year of separation, she said: "He's much thinner."
Security was tight outside the court building, where a group of supporters tried to evade detention by police and security guards, activists said.
"There were a lot [of supporters]; I saw several dozen," an activist who gave only a nickname Kuang Ma told RFA.
"There were also a lot of police and police vehicles, and they were shooting video of the supporters," she said.
‘Pure political persecution’
Rights activists slammed the verdict as a form of political persecution.
"This is pure political persecution," Guangdong rights activist Jia Pin told RFA. "These guys didn't do anything to break the law."
"And most of their activities were very moderate in nature, like civil disobedience actions to try to get Chinese society to be a bit more progressive, and to push China a bit closer to democracy," he said.
"They aren't just innocent; they also did a lot to help the citizens of this country, using very positive actions," Jia said.
According to the overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network, the court’s decision "sends a clear and defiant message from the Xi [Jinping] government that it is determined to punish those exercising and defending human rights."
Tang, who was strip of his license to practice law by the authorities, was detained after he tried to launch a nonviolent civil disobedience movement along with fellow activists, earning him the nickname "China's Gandhi."
According to CHRD, Tang received a longer sentence than the others because of his position as the leader of the movement.
All three men had played a prominent role in press freedom protests centered on the Southern Weekend newspaper in early 2013, as well as taken part in commemorative activities for the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre the following year.
The police charge sheet for Tang mentioned his involvement in "civil disobedience movements," a commemoration of the death of Mao-era dissident Lin Zhao, and a June 4 meditation event.
Also mentioned was his part in a campaign to end China's "hukou" household registration system linking access to education and other public services to a person's town of birth.
Tortured in custody
Both Tang and Wang say they were tortured while initially detained at Baiyun District Detention Center in Guangzhou. All three men are currently being held in the Guangzhou No. 1 Detention Center.
"The verdict comes down amid President Xi Jinping’s relentless persecution of human rights lawyers and many other figures in China’s civil society," CHRD said in a statement on its website.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on Beijing to overturn the convictions in a statement issued after the verdict and sentencing on Friday.
"The Chinese government needs to stop equating peaceful criticism with subversion if it is to make any progress towards respecting rights," HRW China director Sophie Richardson said in a statement on the group's website.
"The prosecution of three rights activists on such dubious charges shows how far Beijing needs to go."
HRW said the case had also been marred by multiple procedural violations.
Richardson said the sentences don’t bode well for more than a dozen human rights lawyers facing similar charges following a nationwide police operation targeting more than 300 rights lawyers and rights activists.
"The authorities should step in and end these prosecutions now," she said.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.