A court in the Chinese capital on Thursday handed down a 12-year prison sentence to a prominent rights lawyer after finding him guilty of "fraud," in a move slammed by rights groups as political persecution.
Xia Lin, whose clients have included dissident artist Ai Weiwei, was sentenced to 12 years' imprisonment by the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People's Court after pleading not guilty to the charges, his lawyer said.
He was also ordered to pay fines and compensation totaling nearly five million yuan ($750,000), and deprived of political rights for three years.
As he was led out of the court after the sentencing, Xia, 46, shouted: "This is retaliation for the cases I have defended!"
Apart from Ai Weiwei, Xia has also defended Sichuan earthquake rights activist Tan Zuoren, rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, and Deng Yujiao, a waitress from Hubei province who killed a government official who tried to rape her.
Xia's wife Lin Ruhuo burst into tears when she heard the result, saying she had never expected such a harsh sentence to be handed to her husband, his lawyer Ding Xikui told RFA.
"We argued at the trial that he was not guilty, and this result is the polar opposite of that," Ding said. "We think this is an unjust verdict and sentence."
"Xia Lin has already made it clear that he wants to appeal."
Refused to confess
Xia's sentence came after he refused to "admit to his crimes" during interrogation, Ding said. Political prisoners who make "confessions" are generally treated more leniently by the authorities.
Security was tight outside the court buildings in Beijing, where a crowd of well-wishers turned out in Xia's support.
People's Liberation Army (PLA) veteran Cui Yingjie said his family is forever grateful to Xia, whose defense saved him from a death penalty after he accidentally killed an urban management officer, or chengguan, who attacked him.
"He saved my life back then," Cui said. "Xia Lin speaks out for the most vulnerable in society. He's not afraid to speak truth to power, and most of his cases are politically sensitive."
"He was given this sentence today because he angered some people [in power]."
Amnesty International China researcher Patrick Poon said the ruling Chinese Communist Party had no legal basis for jailing Xia.
"This was a very harsh sentence ... and it's not hard to suppose that the future is going to get tougher and tougher for human rights lawyers in China," Poon told RFA.
"The government's crackdown on rights lawyers is getting harsher and harsher," he said.
Crackdown on rights lawyers
Xia was detained by Beijing police in November 2014, one of the earliest in a long list of lawyers to be targeted by President Xi Jinping's "stability maintenance" program.
Prosecutors said he had defrauded several people out of at least 10 million yuan ($1.5 million) to pay off gambling debts.
But Ding argued that the money was in private loans and was being repaid, that there was no evidence of a gambling debt, and that the loans were personal or civil matters.
Under China's Criminal Law, official guidelines recommend 10-12 years in jail for fraud crimes.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang declined to comment on the case on Thursday, saying it was a domestic matter.
China launched a nationwide operation targeting rights lawyers, law firm employees and associated activists in July 2015, detaining or otherwise placing restrictions on more than 300 people and their families.
In August, a court in Tianjin sentenced four rights activists and lawyers to jail terms of up to 7-and-a-half years on subversion charges, while 13 more remain in custody or under 24-hour surveillance by state security police.
Reported by Ng Yik-tung and Lee Lai for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.