A court in the northern Chinese city of Tianjin on Friday handed down a three-year suspended jail term to prominent rights lawyer Li Heping after finding him guilty of subversion, but the authorities appear not to have let him go free.
Li was sentenced by the Tianjin No. 2 Intermediate People's Court, which found him guilty of "subversion of state power" in a trial behind closed doors.
The sentence was suspended for four years. Li was also deprived of his political rights for four years, the court said on its verified Weibo account.
"The court decided not to proceed with an open trial, owing to the fact that the Li Heping case involved state secrets," it said.
The court found that Li had, largely through the medium of foreign media interviews, "attacked and discredited organs of the state and China's legal system."
The judgement also accused him of using foreign funds and "hyping cases" to further provoke people already disgruntled with the country's political system.
Li had also "colluded with illegal religious activities to subvert the power of the state," the court said.
It accused him of conspiring with fellow lawyers and associates to "jointly plan a strategy, steps and methods to overthrow the socialist system," concluding that he had endangered national security and social stability.
"Our judgement is that there is complete and genuine evidence to convict Li of the crime of subversion of state power," the court said.
Li's wife Wang Qiaoling told RFA on Friday that Li has yet to be freed, however.
"Li Heping isn't free. He should have arrived home by noon today, but there are certain people keeping guard over our front door," she said. "They are trying to get me to go to Tianjin with our child."
"If I go to Tianjin to meet with Li Heping, I will be held under house arrest there," she said.
Police had shown her a letter purporting to be written by Li, but she had rejected it as potentially fake, Wang said.
"Later on, I got a phone call from my husband's phone, but he didn't dare say anything much, just that he 'suggested' I go to Tianjin to see him," she said. "I told him the reason I wasn't going wasn't that I don't love him or miss him but that I'm afraid the government will hold the whole family under house arrest."
"They're not going to release him properly," she predicted.
No access to lawyer in 22 months of detention
Meanwhile, Cai Ying, a defense attorney who was hired to represent Li but never allowed to perform that function, said Li had done nothing to break Chinese law.
"In a normal state of affairs, Li Heping would be innocent, because his actions do not amount to a crime," Cai told RFA. "Now [the authorities] are looking for the best way to back down from the situation."
"According to the notification, there is no mention of his having confessed, either, just an expression of regret, which isn't the same thing," Cai said.
Amnesty International China researcher Patrick Poon said via his Twitter account on Friday that Li has had no access to a lawyer since he was detained.
Poon told Reuters the sentence means Li will be "silenced for another four years," in a reference to conditions and ongoing police surveillance that typically apply in such cases.
A suspended jail term is no guarantee of personal liberty, according to rights groups and lawyers. Prominent rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng was repeatedly taken to unknown locations and tortured during his suspended sentence.
Li's sentencing comes after the administration of President Xi Jinping launched a nationwide police operation targeting the country's human rights lawyers, law firm employees and associated activists beginning with a raid on the Beijing Fengrui Law Firm in July 2015.
China has since detained, questioned, or otherwise placed restrictions on more than 300 lawyers, law firm staff, human right activists, and family members.
Several remain in some form of pretrial detention, mostly on subversion or state security charges, while dozens of others have been banned from leaving the country or placed under house arrest or other forms of surveillance.
Authorities in the northern Chinese city of Tianjin have indicted prominent rights lawyer Li Heping on unknown charges, paving the way for a trial, while other lawyers detained in a July 2015 crackdown remain in pretrial detention.
Li was arrested early on in the crackdown, but his case has been sent back twice to police for further investigation, the maximum number of times allowed, and he was finally indicted on Dec. 5.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.