A court in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan has handed down a suspended three-year prison term to a man who sold liquor with references to the 1989 Tiananmen massacre on the label, following a secret trial.
Teahouse proprietor Fu Hailu was found guilty of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble" in a trial at the Chengdu Intermediate People's Court on Monday and handed a three-year prison term, suspended for five years.
The trial came after Fu and three other defendants were held for three years in pretrial detention, amid repeated delays and postponements by the authorities.
Ran Tong, an attorney previously appointed to defend Fu by his family who was later replaced by a government-appointed lawyer, welcomed the verdict.
"The [defendants] and their relatives have borne the brunt of the suffering," Fu's defense attorney Ran Tong told RFA after the verdict, which could see his former client reunited with his family soon.
"From a humanitarian, person-centered point of view, it's a good thing that this family will be reunited as soon as possible," he said. "Some people had other ideas, because they thought he shouldn't have been found guilty."
"We are of the opinion that [Fu] is innocent, but the fact that he will be released in the current national circumstances, and his suffering minimized, is a good result," Ran said.
Fellow-defendants Luo Fuyu, Zhang Juanyong and Chen Bing are scheduled to stand trial later this week. The four were initially detained on suspicion of "incitement to subvert state power."
Fu's wife Liu Tianyan said she was unhappy with the verdict, however.
"Of course I'm not happy about it," Liu told RFA. "I have said all along that he was innocent."
Liu said Fu was being released under 'coercive measures' after striking a deal with the authorities not to appeal the verdict, and that he is not yet free to go home.
"They said in court that we could send someone to the police station to meet him [on his release], but now Fu is under coercive measures, so I haven't managed to meet him yet," she said.
Fu was initially taken away by police in the provincial capital Chengdu in May 2016, after he and three others marketed the alcohol, which bore the words "June 4, 1989" and a cartoon of a man in front of an advancing column of tanks on the label. The label also says "Never forget, never give up."
According to another slogan on the bottle, the baijiu spirit had "matured for 27 years," the length of time since People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops put an end to weeks of student protests on Tiananmen Square, using tanks and machine guns on largely unarmed civilians.
Luo Fuyu's wife Gao Yan said she is mentally prepared for his trial, and that she expects him to be treated similarly to Fu.
"If I had to guess I'd say that I'm expecting something similar," Gao told RFA, saying that such an outcome would still be far from ideal. "There's a lot of pressure involved with the suspended sentence, because they have to report to their residential and neighborhood committees within a set period of time."
"They have to make reports about their thinking, and they can be called to take part in voluntary activities in their community at any time," she said. "They won't be allowed to leave Chengdu, so there will still be restrictions on their freedom."
Risk of redetention
Sources close to the case said the U.S. consulate had sent someone to attend the trial, but that they were refused entry to the court building.
Sichuan democracy activist Li Shuangde said he was angry about the sentence, which he feared could lead to Fu's future 'disappearance,' as in the case of disappeared human rights attorney Gao Zhisheng.
"He may get out of the detention center, but the five-year suspension mean that the authorities can redetain Fu Hailu at any time, if they think he's not doing as he's told," Li said.
"He is quite likely to get detained again, and I'm very angry about this sentence," he said.
Media reports at the time said the Tiananmen-themed liquor had been designed for private circulation among groups of friends on social media, rather than for public sale.
China regularly implements nationwide security measures aimed at preventing any public memorials linked to the June 4 crackdown, which was styled a "counterrevolutionary rebellion" by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.