A court in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan on Monday handed a 12-year jail term to dissident poet Li Bifeng for "contract fraud," his relatives and lawyer said.
Aside from the imprisonment, Li Bifeng, 48, was imposed a fine of a 30,000 yuan (U.S.$4,800) by the Shehong County People's Court in a trial that lasted just over one hour, his lawyer Ma Xiaopeng said.
"He wouldn't let his family come to the trial because he had a feeling that this would be the result," Ma said, adding that some of Li's friends had attended the hearing as spectators. "I had expected a sentence of 15 years, so at least it's somewhat lighter," he said.
But he rejected the charges against Li. "Whatever the sentence, it's still unacceptable," Ma said. "[Li's actions] in no way add up to a crime."
"There was nothing in his affairs that had anything to do with contracts," he said. "The only contracts he had signed had long since expired."
Ma, who visited Li shortly after the sentence was handed down, said he was "disappointed" with the sentence, but thought an appeal might be a waste of time.
"He said he would think about it for a couple of days, but my feeling was that he probably didn't want to appeal, because he thought it wouldn't do much good."
"He said it would be better to use the next 12 years to produce some serious writing."
Li's wife Jiang Xia, who was unable to attend the trial, said the court had not yet informed the family of the sentence.
"I was very surprised, because I thought the only thing for them to do today would be to release him," she said. "Our son is 17 years old this year, and he cried when he heard the news."
Jiang said she hoped Li would decide to appeal, because the charges weren't straightforward.
"This is totally unacceptable, because the charges of contract fraud simply don't stand up," she said. "I think there must be some other factors involved here."
Germany-based exile author Liao Yiwu, who is a close friend of Li's, said the sentence was "evil."
Sichuan-based rights activist Huang Qi, who founded the Tianwang rights website, said China's crackdown on dissent was continuing unabated, even after the leadership transition at last week's 18th Party Congress.
"The authorities haven't let up their crackdown on dissidents in many long years," Huang said. "Now, because of concerns about China's human rights image overseas, they are taking measures to dress it up as something else."
"The use of 'contract fraud' as a charge to deal with Li Bifeng is quite ridiculous, because there weren't even any victims," he said. "We strongly condemn this sentence."
Li was detained in September 2011 after being asked to report to a police station in Sichuan's Mianyang city about his "economic problems."
Chinese rights activists say it is an increasingly common practice by the authorities to fabricate various "economic crimes" as a way of keeping a lid on dissent.
Prominent Chinese artist and social critic Ai Weiwei was detained in June 2011 and was released almost three months later, before being fined for "tax evasion," a charge he maintains was politically motivated.
Rights groups believe Li was held as part of a wider clampdown on activists following online calls in February for a "Jasmine" revolution inspired by uprisings in the Middle East.
Li is a prominent Sichuan poet and rights activist served five years in prison for his involvement in the 1989 pro-democracy movement, followed by a seven-year jail term in 1998 for reporting on a workers’
protest in Mianyang.
Reported by Grace Kei Lai-see for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.