A court in the southwestern province of Sichuan on Wednesday handed down a suspended two-and-a-half year jail term to an octogenarian author after he wrote an article criticizing the ruling Chinese Communist Party's propaganda chief, his lawyer said.
Huang Zerong, 82, widely known by his pen name Tie Liu, was released immediately after the sentence, which was suspended for four years.
However, he declined to give any media interviews, his wife Ren Hengfang said in a statement issued via a friend.
Tie was also fined 30,000 yuan. Fellow defendant and personal assistant Huang Jing received a jail term of one year, suspended for one year, and a fine of 5,000 yuan, and was also released.
Tie was was initially detained by police at his Beijing home in September on suspicion of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble."
He was later also charged with "running an illegal business" and was transferred to police detention in Sichuan's provincial capital, Chengdu.
Tie's defense lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan said the authorities had offered a fast-track judicial process taking account of his age, but which offered no option to plead "not guilty."
"This is a totally unjust decision," Liu said. "Tie Liu was initially detained for 'picking quarrels and stirring up trouble', and then they added a second charge during his detention."
"I think it was hard for them to make the evidence stand up, and that's why he has ended up with a relatively light sentence," he said.
Tie had pleaded guilty in court, in spite of having maintained his innocence to Liu in a November meeting, Liu said.
Linked to magazine
Liu said the charges of running an illegal business were linked to Tie's Mark of the Past magazine, which focused on the injustices of the "anti-rightist" campaigns of the 1950s. The magazine was shut down by the government in 2011.
"This really doesn't amount to running an illegal business," Liu said, adding that the case should never have been transferred back to Tie's birthplace in Sichuan, as the author had lived most of his life in the Chinese capital.
"This case was initially brought by the Beijing police, and then was transferred to police in [Sichuan's provincial capital] Chengdu," he said.
"This is completely wrong, and no court in Sichuan has any jurisdiction in this case," Liu said.
Rights activists said Tie's "picking quarrels" charge could be linked to an open letter he wrote to China's National People's Congress (NPC) slamming tight controls on press freedom imposed by former Communist Party propaganda czar Liu Yunshan.
According to the article, "Liu Yunshan is a person of the lowest order ... and the driving force behind the corrupt elite in charge of China's media."
"He is more evil than [former propaganda chief] Deng Liqun and more left-wing than [former Xinhua news agency chief] Hu Qiaomu," wrote Tie, who served a total of 23 years in prison during the "anti-rightist" political campaigns of the Mao era.
He was eventually rehabilitated with the advent of Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms in 1980.
Liu said the "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble" charge was linked to 11 articles Tie wrote, six of which mentioned high-ranking Chinese leaders, including Liu Yunshan.
"It would have been hard to handle this [politically] in Beijing, and that's why the case was transferred to Chengdu," he said.
Supporters turned away
A large group of Tie's supporters had shown up outside the Qingyang District People's Court in Chengdu on Wednesday, but had been refused permission to sit in the public gallery, activists said.
"More than 30 people showed up to attend the trial, but they didn't get in," Sichuan-based rights activist Chen Yunfei told RFA. "They only allowed five people to go in, whose names they had."
Chen said some of Tie's relatives had been among the five.
Tie's close friend and fellow former "rightist" Luo Kaiwen was also outside the court buildings on Wednesday.
"There were a lot of police there, and a large number of supporters, many of whom didn't know each other, but who had come out in support of Tie Liu," Luo said.
"I held up a placard saying 'Tie Liu is Innocent!'"
He added: "I think he was right to criticize Liu Yunshan. He only said what the majority of people were thinking."
A third supporter, fellow "rightist" Zhou Tian, said the charges against Tie were "fabricated from nothing."
"He only pleaded guilty so as to get off lightly," Zhou said.
"They asked how he pleaded, and he said he had had time for reflection, and that he had decided he did do something wrong," Zhou said.
"He said he wouldn't get involved in current affairs or politics from now on, and that he would spend his twilight years in peace."
"He said he was wrong to set up Mark of the Past, and that it was an illegal publication."
No blame attached
Zhou said he didn't blame his friend for going along with the charges.
"It's easy enough to plead guilty to charges that were made up out of thin air," he said.
A supporter surnamed Liu said she had caught a brief glimpse of Tie in the stairwell of the court buildings.
"I chased after him and was able to shake him by the hand," she said. "I said I hoped he would be strong and live a happy life."
"He seemed in good spirits. I wanted to talk to him because I heard he crossed Liu Yunshan."
She added: "We should be allowed to express our opinions about our country's leaders."
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.