Authorities in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangsu have handed a four-year jail term to human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng on subversion charges.
Yu was sentenced by Jiangsu's Xuzhou Intermediate People's Court after it found him guilty of "incitement to subvert state power" in a secret trial.
The sentence comes after Yu was held for nearly three years in pretrial detention.
Yu's wife Xu Yan was informed in a phone call from the Xuzhou City Procuratorate on June 17 after the verdict was read behind closed doors the same morning.
"Yu Wensheng was sentenced alone, in secret, without my knowledge or that of his other family members, his lawyers or people who are concerned about him," Xu said. "I had no way of being in court to help or support him."
"The Chinese authorities have totally disregarded the law, and the rules [of due process]," she said, adding that Yu had said in court that he would appeal.
An official who answered the phone at the Xuzhou municipal procuratorate confirmed that the sentence had been handed down without Xu's knowledge.
"She wrote to the deputy head of the procuratorate asking if sentence had been passed or not, so he called her and told her that it had," the officials said.
No relationship to any actual law-breaking
Xie Yang, a rights lawyer hired by Xu to defend Yu but never allowed to meet with him, said the sentence had no relationship to any actual law-breaking on Yu's part.
"He was sentenced to four years purely on the basis of stuff he wrote online," Xie said. "I am speechless."
"The Chinese Communist Party has to have everyone toe the party line; they can't tolerate dissenting voices."
Hong Kong rights lawyer Albert Ho said the sentence was a form of political retaliation for Yu's outspokenness following a nationwide operation targeting rights lawyers and law firms that began on July 9, 2015.
"It is totally unconstitutional for speech to be a crime," Ho said. "This is an illegal sentence, and we called on [Beijing] to make a public explanation."
"They should release Yu Wensheng immediately."
The overseas-based rights network Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) said Yu's role as former defense attorney for rights attorney Wang Quanzhang was also behind his persecution at the hands of the authorities.
"The persecution of Yu Wensheng in reprisal for exercising and defending human rights and the grave injustices involved in this case demand his immediate and unconditional release," the group said in a statement on Wednesday.
Beaten up and tortured in handcuffs
Yu was indicted on Feb. 1, 2019 and his case handed over to the municipal prosecutor in Jiangsu's Xuzhou city. His lawyers made dozens of attempts to visit him, but all requests were denied.
He was held under "residential surveillance at a designated location" (RSDL), a form of detention used in cases allegedly involving matters of state security.
The measure, which enables the authorities to deny access to lawyers or family visits, has been repeatedly used to target human rights lawyers, and is associated with a higher risk of torture and other mistreatment, rights groups said.
Shortly before his detention, Yu's application to start a new law firm was rejected over comments he made "opposing Communist Party rule and attacking the country’s socialist legal system," Amnesty International said.
Yu had earlier described being beaten up and tortured in handcuffs by police in Daxing after he voiced support for the 2014 pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.
Yu was also detained in October 2017 after he wrote an open letter criticizing President Xi Jinping as ill-suited to lead China due to his strengthening totalitarian rule over the country.
In August, United Nations human rights experts called on Beijing to repeal regulations allowing the use of RSDL, because they were in breach of China’s international human rights obligations and commitments.
Previously, the Committee against Torture in its concluding observations had also expressed concern about RSDL.
Reported by Ng Yik-tung and Sing Man for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.