A court in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou gave suspended prison terms on Monday to three labor activists detained in a crackdown last year, handing down relatively lenient terms because the trio had confessed and were first-time offenders, China's official media said.
Zeng Feiyang, founder of the Panyu Migrant Workers Center, was given a three-year sentence, suspended for four years, which means he would go to jail if he is convicted of offenses during that period. The two other organizers, Tang Huanxing and Zhu Xiaomei, were sentenced to 18 months in prison with two-year suspensions.
Arrested in December during the ruling Chinese Communist Party's sweeping crackdown on non-government groups, especially those involved in the country's nascent but unofficial labor movement, Zeng, Tang and Zhu were accused of "gathering a crowd to disrupt public order."
"The defendants ignored national laws and organized mass gatherings that disturbed social order. Their acts, of a severe nature, resulted in an enterprise being suspended and led to grave losses," the official Xinhua News Agency said on Monday, quoting a statement by the Panyu District court.
All three had pleaded guilty and chose not to appeal, Xinhua said. The agency said the three received relatively light penalties because they had confessed to their crimes, and were first offenders who had repented.
Zeng Feiyang's former attorney, Chen Jinxue, told RFA's Mandarin Service he welcomed the Zeng's release on probation. But he stressed that Zeng was not guilty.
"Zeng Feiyang was sentenced to three years of imprisonment but it was suspended for four years. Since I am no longer his attorney so I did not go to court for the trial. Of course, he was innocent in the first place therefore I think the verdict is an unjust sentence. But at least he can be released right away so I am also happy for him," said Chen.
In July, Chen suddenly received a notice from Zeng's family to terminate his legal relationship with the activist.
Analysts said the suspended sentence would effectively rule out further labor advocacy work by Zeng, 41, and his colleagues, while staff described chilling police pressure on the Panyu Migrant Workers Center.
At least four employees of the Panyu Migrant Workers Center have been under tight surveillance or have been invited by police to "have tea," one of the staff told RFA's Cantonese Service, describing police efforts to prevent activists from attending the trial.
About thirty protesters from the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions have demonstrated at the Liaison Office of the Central's People's Government in Hong Kong.
"In China, the freedom to join unions and to strike should be protected. They should not be criminally prosecuted for organizing these activities," confederation spokesman Lam Cho-ming said.
The Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin said Zeng and his center organized migrant workers to resolve labour disputes through collective bargaining.
"Prior to the crackdown, the Center gained a good reputation among workers and on occasion was even able to facilitate tripartite talks between employers, workers and local government officials in more serious disputes," the CLB said, prior to Monday's sentencing.
Zeng and his colleagues could not be reached for comment.
Reported by RFA's Cantonese Service and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated by Wong Lok-to and Chen Ping. Written in English By Paul Eckert.