Authorities in the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang have jailed a Han Chinese rights activist for 19 years on subversion and spying charges after he openly criticized government policy in the troubled region.
Zhang Haitao was handed a 15-year prison term for "incitement to subvert state power" and five years for "providing intelligence overseas" by the Intermediate People's Court in Xinjiang's regional capital, Urumqi.
He will serve 19 years in total in a sentence that one overseas rights group described as "extraordinarily harsh."
His wife Li Aijie, who was informed on Jan. 18 of the court's decision and had just given birth to the couple's baby son, told RFA she was "stunned" by the sentence.
"I am really just in a state of shock right now," Li said. "I just went and kicked up a huge fuss at the court, calling them shameless."
"Even shameless people should have some limits," she said.
Li said she had expected a sentence of perhaps 2-3 years, based on the jail terms of six years handed down to prominent rights lawyers Pu Zhiqiang and Guo Feixiong.
"Now they have sentenced my husband to 19 years in prison," she said. "This government acts without reason. Is it just because he is in Xinjiang?"
"Do they hand out heavier sentences in Xinjiang?"
Critical articles online
Zhang was accused of "incitement to subvert state power" after he posted articles online that were critical of Beijing's record in Xinjiang, home to the mostly Muslim Uyghur ethnic group, and where hundreds have died in a string of violent incidents in recent years.
The court said it had handed down a longer jail term because Zhang had "colluded" with overseas organizations.
According to the Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network, which collates reports from rights groups inside China, such a lengthy jail term is usually only used in cases where the defendant is the "ringleader" of a subversive group.
By comparison, jailed Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo is service an 11-year sentence, while other prominent dissidents have received sentences of between seven and 10 years on the same charge, CHRD said in a statement on its website.
Zhang was initially detained on June 26, 2015 on suspicion of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," but the charges against him were later changed to the more serious subversion and spying charges.
"[This] suggests weak evidence against the activist and even the possibility of a coerced confession," CHRD said.
It said Zhang had frequently posted online his opinions critical of government policies and comments on current events, and gave interviews to overseas media, as well as writing articles for a human rights website.
"These activities have been cited in the court verdict as evidence for 'providing intelligence overseas,' which stipulates a sentence of not more than five years 'if the circumstances are minor'," CHRD said.
Zhang's lawyer Li Dunyong said he too was shaken by the length of the sentence.
"I had guessed maybe 11 or 12 years," Li Dunyong said. "But here in Xinjiang, a lot of things are unpredictable."
"It's like an independent kingdom out here, not like the rest of China, and ... they hand down heavy sentences to Uyghurs and Han Chinese alike here."
"The charges were basically based on stuff he wrote online; there wasn't much evidence otherwise," he said, rejecting the spying charges.
"He's just a regular guy," Li Dunyong said. "Where would he get his intelligence reports from?"
He said he had advised Zhang to lodge an appeal.
Reported by Lin Jing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.