Authorities in the eastern Chinese province of Anhui on Friday handed a three-and-a-half-year jail term to a prominent dissident over a protest against his daughter's removal from school because of his activism.
Zhang Lin, a veteran member of the banned opposition China Democracy Party (CDP), was sentenced by the Bengshan District People's Court in Anhui's Bengbu city for "gathering a crowd to disrupt public order" at a demonstration in April 2013, at which dozens of people protested an elementary school for preventing his 10-year-old daughter Zhang Anni from attending class.
"At around 10.00 a.m., I called the judge in Zhang Lin's case...and he said the sentenced had been passed of three years and six months," Zhang's lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan, who is currently in the Xinjiang regional capital Urumqi on another high-profile case, told RFA on Friday.
"When I heard this, I told them they'd gone crazy," Liu said. "I really hadn't expected them to hand down such a heavy sentence."
He said Zhang's case had been delayed three times and delayed for more than a year already.
"And yet they still sentence him to three-and-a-half years," Liu said.
"This judgement is ridiculous," he added. "I think it's because the authorities have been cracking down on dissent, and street protests in particular, since last year."
Zhang pleaded not guilty at his trial last December, telling the court his own actions had been "reasonable and lawful" at all times and were a response to the illegal actions of the Anhui authorities.
Anni was dubbed "China's youngest prisoner of conscience" after she was taken out of school and detained for several hours in February, denied food water and a blanket, and later prevented from attending school and held under house arrest, according to rights groups.
"Zhang Lin's case only came about because he moved his daughter from a school in Bengbu to one in [the provincial capital] Hefei, and the Hefei state security police interfered with her education there," Liu said.
"This attracted the support of a lot of netizens, who went to Hefei, and the police cleared the area," he said.
"Whichever way you look at it, the charge of 'gathering a crowd to disrupt public order' doesn't stand up, in my opinion," Liu added.
"Especially given that there were no serious consequences."
Zhang's daughter Anni has been living in the U.S. since September 2013, along with her half-sister, who issued a statement on Thursday.
"It is a crime that this brave man is in jail simply for standing up for Anni's right to go to school," Zhang Ruli wrote in a statement e-mailed to RFA.
"No legitimate government would treat a child this way," it said.
"We demand the immediate release of all those who are detained for helping Anni, China's youngest prisoner of conscience."
Not the first
Rights activists say Anni and Ruli, who left China for California following their father's arrest, are not the first children of veteran dissidents from China's 1989 pro-democracy movement to be targeted by the authorities and that the family has suffered economic hardship as a result of Zhang's long-term unemployment linked to his dissident past.
Both girls wrote an open letter to President Barack Obama on Friday, calling on the White House to intervene on their father's behalf.
"We hope you can...give our father back his freedom," the letter said.
It said fellow activists Yao Chengshe and Zhou Weilin had both also stood trial on Aug. 6, on charges linked to their support for Zhang and his daughter, but have yet to be sentenced.
Liu, meanwhile, said he would apply to visit Zhang Lin in the Bengbu Detention Center later this month.
"Zhang Lin has previously said...that he would want to appeal if they found him guilty," he said.
"The three-and-a-half year sentence...is a travesty of justice," Reggie Littlejohn, president of the U.S.-based group Women's Rights Without Frontiers (WRWF), said in a statement e-mailed to RFA on Friday. "All [Zhang] did was defend the right of his daughter Anni to go to school."
"WRWF demands his immediate release."
Zhang, 51, is a veteran of the 1989 pro-democracy movement in Anhui and was jailed several times for his political activities since the banning of the opposition China Democracy Party (CDP) in 1998.
Many dissidents imprisoned after the 1989 military crackdown on student-led protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing married late after serving lengthy jail terms, and their children are still relatively young.
Zhang was formally arrested on Aug. 22, 2013 following a dispute with the authorities after police pulled Anni out of primary school in February and detained her for several hours.
Zhang and Anni left the provincial capital of Anhui in April 2013 for the family's hometown of Bengbu after more than 30 activists from around the country converged on Hefei in protest at Anni's Feb. 27, 2013 removal from the city's Hupo Elementary School by police.
The family was held under house arrest and Anni was still denied permission to attend school, prompting Zhang to escape house arrest to press his case with National People's Congress delegates and activists in Beijing.
State security police brought the pair back to Bengbu amid firm promises that Anni could attend school and that no retaliatory action would be taken.
But the authorities swiftly moved against Zhang, holding him under criminal detention soon after his return, and prompting a lone protest from Anni outside the Bengbu detention center, where she held up a placard which read: "Release my father and let me go to school."
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.