A court in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong on Friday sentenced two rights activists to jail for subversion for using the internet and social media to “attack the socialist system."
Su Changlan, who has campaigned for the land rights of local farming communities, including the right of rural women, was jailed for three years after being found guilty of "incitement to subvert state power" by the Foshan Intermediate People's Court after a more than two years in pretrial detention.
Fellow Foshan rights activist Chen Qitang was jailed for four years and six months on the same charge.
The court judgement found that Su and Chen had "used the internet and social media to spread rumors and defamation, and repeatedly published or forwarded articles and posts containing attacks on the socialist system."
"Their actions constitute the crime of incitement to subvert state power," the court said.
Defense attorney Liu Xiaoyuan said the sentencing hearing lasted just three minutes, and judges hadn't inquired whether or not the defendants would appeal.
"This was unexpected, and went against the expectations of the defendants," Liu said.
"Today's sentencing hearing took just three minutes, and they didn't even allow time to read the judgement or hear opinions, nor did they ask if there would be appeals, or their opinions on the judgement," he said.
"Then they took them away," Liu said, adding that he would file a procedural complaint.
"They are definitely supposed to read out both the judgement and the opinions of the defense counsel," he said. "They are also supposed to ask the defendants if they plan to appeal."
Fellow defense attorney Wu Kuiming said the authorities had likely deliberately curtailed the hearing for security reasons.
"It's not usual for attorneys to have to go through security checks, but they told us that today was special and that we would have to do this, and the escorted us through in person," Wu told RFA.
"Then I found out that none of the other courts in the building were in operation that day," he said.
He said Su and Chen's hearings had been treated as separate cases, with Su's starting at 9 a.m. and Chen's at 10.30 a.m.
"We didn't get our copy of the judgement for a long time; I don't even think they had it ready. I don't know why," Wu said.
Security outside the court building was tight, with large numbers of plainclothes police mingling with passers-by outside, and preventing anyone from taking photos, fellow activists said.
"It was raining today. I got there at about 8.45 a.m. at the east gate. I couldn't see the prisoner vans," Guangdong-based activist Liao Jianhao said. "There were plainclothes police all around me—young people with earpieces."
"One of our group got out his phone to take pictures but he was immediately surrounded by three or four of these young people who said the pictures had to be deleted; then they told us to leave," Liao said.
"They had sealed off the road to the east of the court building, and they were forcing everyone to cross over to the south side of the road," he said, estimating that around 50 people had shown up to support Su and Chen, mostly from Guangdong.
Guangdong activist Wang Aizhong said the authorities are keen to stamp out any signs of nonviolent resistance among activists.
"These are baseless charges, whether we are talking about Su Changlan or Chen Qitang, which the authorities have pinned on them as a political offense," Wang said.
"Actually, they want to suppress anyone who fights for the rights and interests of ordinary people, and any form of disobedience to the dictatorship," he said.
Activists in Hong Kong staged a protest against the sentences, saying that some of the posts made by Su and Chen had been in support of the 2014 pro-democracy Occupy Central movement.
"Just a peaceful action like posting a few words or photos in support of Hong Kong's Umbrella movement is enough to get you a few years in jail," rights activist and lawyer Albert Ho told the protest.
Demonstrators chanted "Free Su Changlan! Free Chen Qitang! Release all political prisoners!" outside Beijing's representative office in the city.
Others chanted: "Supporting the Umbrella movement is not a crime!"
The Occupy Central movement saw hundreds of thousands of people pour onto the streets in a campaign for full democracy, using umbrellas to protect themselves from sun, rain, and pepper spray, which gave the demonstration the nickname Umbrella Movement.
But the movement ended with no political victory, and amid accusations from the ruling Chinese Communist Party that the civil disobedience campaign was being orchestrated by "hostile foreign forces" behind the scenes.
Detention judged ‘arbitrary’
Earlier this month Su, 45, became the third recipient of the Cao Shunli Memorial Award for Human Rights Defenders, in honor of her work "promoting human rights at the grassroots level in China."
There have been growing concerns for her health after a prolonged period in police detention with no medical treatment for her heart arrhythmia and hyperthyroidism, rights groups say.
Su's detention has been judged "arbitrary" by the United Nations, which has called on Beijing to release and compensate her. She is still being held in the Nanhai Detention Center in Foshan.
Chen Qitang, better known by his pseudonym Tian Li, stood trial last April at the Foshan Intermediate People’s Court, where the charges against him focused on six online posts by Chen, three of which were penned by him.
Chen pleaded not guilty, and his defense team argued that none of his actions constituted a crime under Chinese law. But the prosecution case said the articles represented a "harsh attack" on the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Reported by Yang Fan and Ding Wenqi for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.