Authorities in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangxi on Thursday sentenced three New Citizens' Movement activists to jail terms of up to six-and-a-half years on public order charges, after they called on officials to disclose their assets.
Activists Liu Ping and Wei Zhongping were jailed for six-and-a-half years apiece for "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," "using an evil cult to pervert the course of justice" and "gathering a crowd to disrupt social order," the Yushui District People's Court in Jiangxi's Xinyu city announced.
Fellow defendant Li Sihua was jailed for three years for "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble."
The three were detained in April 2013 after they held up signs in the street to demand that high-ranking officials disclose their assets.
The New Citizens’ Movement is a loose grouping of activists pushing for rule of law and democracy in China.
Legal scholar Xu Zhiyong, who helped launch the movement, was sentenced to four years in prison in January.
Li's sister Li Jinying said the hearing got under way at 9.00 a.m., and consisted of the judge reading out the judgment to the assembled court.
"They didn't ask the defendants if they planned to appeal, and Liu Ping and the others said they refused to accept the verdict," she said, adding that security was very tight.
"Some of their supporters traveled here yesterday and were stopped while they were still on the train and sent back home again," Li Jingying added. "Some of the others that made it here were loaded secretly into vehicles and sent back."
She said around 30-40 people had attended the hearing, but that most were court officials, prosecutors, police and other law enforcement personnel.
Liu Ping's daughter Liao Minyue rejected the charges against her mother.
"This verdict and sentence is really ridiculous, and as a family member I find it unacceptable," Liao told RFA after being refused permission to attend the sentencing hearing.
"I don't accept that this is legal, nor the legitimacy of this court," she said. "This is political persecution."
Liao said she had fully expected such sentences, although she hadn't expected all three charges against Liu to be upheld by the court.
"That was beyond anyone's expectations," she said. "But there was nothing we could have done to alter the outcome."
"All we can do is take over the task of democracy from my mother."
Li Sihua's lawyer Zhou Ze said he was very disappointed in the outcome. "We argued... that they were not guilty, and I am disappointed that they were found guilty of these charges," he said.
"That is all I have to say."
The hearing took place behind closed doors and under heavy security, with a police cordon drawn at a distance of 200 meters (about 650 feet) from the court buildings, manned by more than 100 officers, sources said.
Dozens of people linked in some way to the loosely organized New Citizens' Movement have been detained over the past year, according to Amnesty International.
Thursday's sentences bring to 10 the number of activists linked to the movement who have been handed formal jail terms, almost all of them on public order charges.
During the trial last December, six top rights lawyers defending the three anti-corruption activists said they were prevented from finishing their arguments by court officials, while witnesses for the defense were prevented from attending.
Activists said at least seven people who showed up to support Liu, Wei and Li were detained by police outside the building.
Among them were Fujian-based netizen Sun Tao, who was one of a group of eight activists who succeeding in getting close to the court buildings ahead of the trial.
Hebei-based rights activist Liu Linna, better known by her pseudonym Liu Shasha, was the only one not taken away, Sun told RFA.
"There were at least 100 police there, and plainclothes officers too," Sun said. "We were taken away by the plainclothes police, right from in front of the main door of the court building."
Beaten by police
He said one of the group, Yi Xu'an, had been beaten by police after he started taking notes of the proceedings. "I heard him shout that the police were beating him."
"Seven of us were detained, in all," Sun said, adding that one activist, Luo Xiangyang, had been handed a 10-day administrative detention, while the rest had been sent back to their hometowns under escort.
Repeated calls to Liu Shasha's cell phone resulted in a recorded message on Thursday.
Xinyu petitioner Li Xuemei said she had hidden from police after arriving outside the court buildings on Thursday morning on other business and finding it surrounded.
"Once I got there, I hid for a while inside a residential compound, but later I was escorted home," she said. "About four or five of us were brought back from there."
"It was still pretty early, and the court wasn't in session yet, but I saw some other petitioners," Li said. "I feel pretty low. I didn't even get to eat lunch."
Meanwhile, Huang Huimin, the husband of a key witness in Liu Ping's defense, said his wife Liu Xizhen had been locked up by police in a "study class" after being detained on the street on Tuesday.
Asked when she would be released, Huang said: "That's not clear yet."
Calls to Liu Xizhen's cell phone resulted in a "switched off" message on Thursday.
"I went to have a look at the court buildings on the quiet," Huang said. "They had sealed of the whole street leading to the court."
"The police were even detaining mothers with their kids, as if they were supporters or bystanders," he said.
Last December, Xinyu authorities placed 12 defense witnesses under house arrest, preventing them from attending the trial, witnesses and relatives said at the time.
Lawyers for Liu, Wei and Li said they had already been detained longer than the three months allowed under China's criminal procedural law and called at last month's trial for the presiding judges to be taken off the case.
A laid-off worker who gained the backing of more than 30 people for her nomination in district-level legislative elections in 2012, Liu is no stranger to official harassment.
In March 2012, she was held for several weeks in an unofficial detention center, or "black jail," strip-searched, and beaten, rights groups reported at the time.
Before her candidacy for the district People's Congress in Xinyu city was rejected, Liu had mustered a strong following among laid-off and retired workers, as well as existing workers who complained of poor conditions in their jobs.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service and Yang Fan of Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.