A court in the Chinese capital on Tuesday handed down a guilty verdict and a suspended jail term to a prominent rights lawyer on charges of "incitement to ethnic hatred and ethnic discrimination" and "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble" after he fired off seven highly critical tweets to social media.
The Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People's Court issued the guilty verdict for Pu Zhiqiang, along with a three-year suspended jail term that led to his release from a police-run detention. He is currently under "residential surveillance."
"The hearing started at 9 a.m. and ended at 9:30 a.m.," Pu's defense lawyer Shang Baojun told RFA. "Pu Zhiqiang was sentenced to two years for one of the charges and one-and-a-half years for the other."
"Altogether, the sentence was three years' imprisonment, suspended for three years," he said.
Pu is likely to regain his freedom in 10 days' time, Shang said.
"The judge said that he has been placed under residential surveillance, and that they will find a place for him to stay," he said. "He won't be allowed home properly until the appeal window has closed."
Fellow defense attorney Mo Shaoping said Pu had refused all along to plead guilty to the charges, although he had apologized for the rudeness of the tweets, some of which targeted individual politicians.
According to Mo, Pu told the court: "If my tweets caused any harm, then I am happy to make an apology in person, and they are also free to sue me."
He said Pu's conciliatory attitude had been taken into account in passing sentence.
"I spoke to him after the hearing, and he said very clearly that he didn't wish to appeal," Mo said. "He thinks the likelihood of a change of verdict or sentence on appeal is infinitesimal in China's current judicial system."
"He said that he needs to rest after the disaster that was 20-something months behind bars, and that he still hopes to work towards the rule of law in China," Mo said.
He said Pu had sent his thanks to his supporters, many of whom were themselves detained after they showed up outside the court for his trial earlier this month.
Scuffle outside courthouse
Outside the court, security guards and police scuffled with journalists who tried to film the start of the hearing and interview supporters, Beijing rights activist Ye Jinghuan told RFA.
"I went there in the hope of sitting in the public gallery," Ye said. "The last time I wasn't able to go because the police station sent someone round to stop me."
"I went over there today with a few friends, and as I got off the bus at the traffic light near the intersection by the No. 2 Intermediate Court at about 9 a.m., about four or five police were grabbing four or five foreign journalists and pushing and shoving them away," she said.
"I was just walking past in front of them when they grabbed me as well," Ye said. "I tried to walk away, but they wouldn't let me, so I had to show my ID ... which they took away with them somewhere, and two police officers escorted me on either side."
She said the foreign journalists had then tried to interview him.
"Then the police came in and put their hands in the lens, and wouldn't let them interview me, saying interviewing wasn't permitted there," Ye said.
Ye said she was driven to a bus stop and put aboard a bus leaving the district along with around 16 other people and taken to Jiujingzhuang, an unofficial detention center on the outskirts of Beijing.
Four activists — Zhang Zhan, Wang Su'e, Liang Hongxia and Ran Chongbi — remain in criminal detention after they were detained alongside many others who showed up to support Pu at his trial on Dec. 14.
Among them, Wang and Zhang are being held on charges of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," activists said.
Xu Qin, of the China Human Rights Observer group, said the group is following the four closely.
"As far as we know, Zhang's wife has received a phone call saying he is under criminal detention on suspicion of picking quarrels and stirring up trouble, but they didn't say how long he is being held for," Xu said.
He said the authorities have detained the activists in order to frighten others who try to stand up for other people's rights.
CHRD opposes verdict
The overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders' (CHRD) network, which collates reports from rights groups operating inside China, hit out at the verdict against Pu, which comes amid a nationwide crackdown on rights lawyers.
"CHRD urges the international community to push for Pu Zhiqiang’s unconditional freedom and end China’s ongoing persecution of human rights lawyers," the group said in a statement on its website.
"More than 20 lawyers have been put under secret detention since July 9 this year," it said, adding that Pu’s colleague Xia Lin has been detained for more than a year.
"CHRD urges the international community to pressure the Xi Jinping government to drop the charges against Pu and push for the immediate and unconditional release of all other detained or disappeared human rights lawyers," the group said.
The case against Pu rested on seven posts he has admitted making to the popular social media platform Sina Weibo between 2012 and May 2014, but his lawyers say he had done nothing to break Chinese law.
The "incitement to racial hatred" charge was based on a number of tweets he sent in the aftermath of the March 1, 2014, knife attack at Kunming railway station, which left 29 people dead and more than 140 injured.
Pu's initial detention on May 6, 2014, came ahead of an event marking the anniversary of the military crackdown on the 1989 student-led pro-democracy movement at Tiananmen Square, in which he played a prominent role.
Reported by Qiao Long and Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.