A court in the central Chinese province of Henan handed a five-year jail term to veteran rights activist and would-be independent parliamentary election candidate Zhou Decai on public order offenses, rights groups and relatives said this week.
Zhou was handed the sentence by the Gushi county People's Court on Monday for "gathering a crowd to disrupt social order" in what his family said was official retaliation for his rights advocacy.
Zhou's wife, Liu Baoqin, said in a recent interview that the trial took place in June, but that she had been prevented from attending by officials and was later beaten up by unidentified men.
She said she had been allowed into the sentencing hearing on Monday after a long altercation with court officials and police.
Liu said Zhou had shouted to the court that he was innocent of any crime when the sentence was read out.
"His mood was very agitated, and he said he was innocent, and asked why he had been jailed for five years."
Zhou vowed to appeal the sentence, Liu added. "He was a lot thinner, and looked pale and haggard, and his head was shaved," she said.
An independent candidate in his local People’s Congress election and a grassroots organizer and activist for years, Zhou was taken into custody while preparing to attend a labor rights defense seminar in Beijing that focused on tobacco industry workers bought out by their companies, according to the overseas-based China Human Rights Defenders group.
Detained since Feb. 28, Zhou was formally arrested on March 10.
In May, Zhou staged a hunger strike in the Gushi County Detention Center in protest at the charges of "gathering a crowd to disrupt social order."
Liu said the sentence was a direct retaliation for her husband's advocacy work on behalf of local farming communities who had lost their land to development.
"The people would come to him," she said. "How can they say that he incited the people? He fought for justice."
"In one land dispute, he was beaten almost to death," said Liu, who now has to raise two children on her own. "He's a victim, too."
She said Zhou's sentence was a huge blow to her and the family, who lack enough income even to pay the children's school fees.
'No such thing'
The Chinese authorities have warned that there is "no such thing" as an independent candidate, and that anyone hoping to stand for elections this year to the People's Congresses will first have to clear "due legal procedures," the official Xinhua news agency reported.
Apart from a token group of "democratic parties" which never oppose or criticize the ruling Communist Party, opposition political parties are banned in China, and those who set them up are frequently handed lengthy jail terms.
More than two million lawmakers at the county and township levels will be elected during nationwide elections, held every five years, in more than 2,000 counties and 30,000 townships from May 7, 2011 through December 2012.
Reported by Grace Kei Lai-see for RFA's Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.