A court in the central Chinese province of Hubei on Monday handed jail terms of four and three-and-a-half years to two members of the anti-graft New Citizens' Movement following a lengthy pretrial detention, lawyers for the men told RFA.
Yuan Fengchu, also known as Yuan Bing, and Yuan Xiaohua were found guilty of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble" after their April 20 trial at the Chibi Municipal People's Court in Hubei.
Yuan Bing was jailed for four years, and Yuan Xiaohua for three-and-a-half years. The two men, who aren't related, had been on a rights advocacy tour of the country.
They were held in prolonged pretrial incarceration after their initial detention by police in the southern province of Guangdong in June 2013.
A third activist, Huang Wenxun, was detained around the same time as the two Yuans, and is believed to have been tried in secret and sentenced to four years' imprisonment for "incitement to subvert state power."
Defense lawyer Lu Jingmei said both men had vowed to appeal following the sentencing hearing.
"The hearing ended after the sentencing was read out," Lu said. "They didn't give them the chance to say anything, but when we visited them after the hearing they said they plan to appeal, because they reject the verdict."
Lu said they expected the result.
"This case was largely in line with our expectations, and we don't feel too badly about it, because our clients know that this is a case of political persecution," he said.
"In our defense, we focused on breaches of due process by [the police and prosecution]," he said. "It was enough that we told everybody the truth."
Yuan Bing's lawyer Chen Keyun said the prosecution singled out his client's involvement in press freedom protests outside the Southern group of newspapers after a local propaganda official rewrote the 2013 New Year's Day editorial to remove references to constitutional government.
But his attorney said Yuan doesn't believe he has committed any crime.
"He doesn't think that any of his actions amounted to a crime," Chen said. "He wants me to keep arguing his case."
But Guangzhou-based rights activist Jia Pin said he was very angry about the sentencing.
"They took part in a lot of activities, all of which were against injustice," Jia said. "They were merely exercising their rights as enshrined in the constitution, and yet they received such heavy sentences."
"This shows how little political self-confidence the government has," he added.
Jia said the men had also been subjected to mistreatment during their detention in Chibi's Jiayu County Detention Center in Chibi.
"They were subjected to deliberate torture," he said. "It really makes me very angry indeed."
As both men have already been held for nearly three years, Yuan Xiaohua looks set to be released at the end of the month, once time served is taken into consideration, while Yuan Bing is looking at another seven months behind bars.
Pattern of prosecution
The overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network, which compiles reports from rights groups inside China, said the Yuans' trial was "an extreme case in a familiar pattern of persecution."
It said the aim of their "advocacy tour" was to enlighten China about concepts like democracy and the rule of law, and to promote civic activism.
The indictment cited as evidence against them demonstrations during which they advocated for press freedom, government transparency over top leaders’ personal wealth, and called on the government to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which China signed in 1998, CHRD said.
"They spent 34 months in pre-trial detention, a flagrant denial of their right to a fair trial," the group said, calling for the men's immediate release.
Dozens of people linked in some way to the anti-graft New Citizens' Movement group have been detained since President Xi Jinping took power in late 2012, according to Amnesty International.
Anti-graft campaigner and movement founder Xu Zhiyong was handed a four-year jail term in January 2014 on public order charges after staging a street protest calling for greater transparency from the country's richest and most powerful people.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.