A court in the Chinese capital on Friday handed down jail terms of up to three-and-a-half years to four anti-corruption activists linked to a movement campaigning for government transparency after finding them guilty of public order offenses.
Beijing's Haidian District People's Court sentenced Ding Jiaxi, who called publicly on Chinese officials to reveal details of their wealth, for three and a half years, while veteran democracy activist Zhao Changqing received a two-and-a-half year sentence, both for "gathering a crowd to disrupt public order," the court said in a statement on Friday.
Two other activists from the New Citizens Movement, Li Wei and Zhang Baocheng, were jailed by the same court for two years apiece after being found guilty of the same charges, it said.
The four activists' trials, which had been adjourned amid procedural disputes on their opening in January, closed last week amid bitter protests from defense lawyers over the judges' handling of court procedure and evidence submitted for the prosecution.
Ding's defense lawyer Sui Muqing was prevented from attending the sentencing hearing amid tight security on Friday after Beijing's judicial authorities revoked his status as Ding's attorney.
"These heavy sentences ... weren't appropriate to facts of the case," Sui told RFA after the sentences were announced. "They will all definitely be appealing."
"Even though everyone knows that appealing doesn't work, it is still a process through which people can assert their rights," he said.
"Ding Jiaxi and the others were asserting their rights when they protested on the streets, and so the process of lodging this kind of appeal is more meaningful than the result," Sui said.
Sui was given two warnings and a fine during last week's trial hearings, and had finally walked out of the courtroom in protest at violations of legal procedure.
Zhao Changqing's wife Liu Xiaodong said her husband would appeal too.
"I believe that he will definitely appeal, because this was an unjust decision," said Liu, who was allowed to visit Zhao briefly following the sentencing.
"We're not very optimistic about the result of an appeal, but appeal we must," she said.
Last Friday, the Beijing High People's Court rejected the appeal of movement co-founder Xu Zhiyong against a four-year jail term handed down in January on the same public order charges.
Xu, a legal scholar, dismissed his sentence as a "ridiculous" punishment for staging a street protest calling for greater transparency from the country's richest and most powerful people. The cases against Ding, Li, and Zhang rested on similar accusations.
Zhao's attorney, meanwhile, said his client hadn't even attended such a protest, and had merely lent the New Citizens Movement his support.
According to rights groups, such charges are increasingly being used to target activists who call for greater transparency from the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Meanwhile, the wife and 13-year-old daughter of Zhang Baocheng were also permitted a brief visit with him following the hearing on Friday.
Activists said security was tight around the court buildings ahead of the sentencing, and police had detained six of the activists' supporters for 10 hours after they tried to gain admittance to the hearing.
"We had just got there, and there were a lot of police at the intersection already, drawing police lines around it, and I was taking photos of them," Zhang Shengyu, who was among those detained, told RFA. "They took me away immediately."
He said the activists had told police they were acting for the cause of Chinese democracy.
"We were already prepared to go to jail," he said. "I'm sure those four [who were sentenced] took their sentences with an optimistic attitude too."
But Beijing-based rights activist Ye Jinghuan said that all of the sentences handed down to New Citizens' Movement activists were unjust.
"When I heard the news, I was very much against it, because they are innocent," Ye said. "But it has always been this way."
"Xu Zhiyong, Ding Jiaxi, and the others were arrested and jailed for fighting for other people's rights," she said.
Dozens of people linked in some way to the New Citizens Movement have been detained over the past year, according to Amnesty International, while the overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) group said that a total of seven activists linked to the movement have now been handed formal jail terms.
Xu is China's highest-profile dissident to be sentenced to jail since 2009, when Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo was ordered imprisoned for 11 years for subversion after helping organize the "Charter 08" petition calling for sweeping political change and a constitutional government.
In May 2012, Xu penned an article titled "China Needs a New Citizens Movement," which is believed to have spurred the loose nationwide network of activists to action.
The article called on responsible citizens to oppose corruption and work to support disadvantaged groups, as well as holding political meetings and collaborating to achieve these goals.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service and by Xin Yu for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.