A court in the southwestern province of Sichuan on Monday handed down a 12-year jail term to veteran activist Huang Qi, founder of the Tianwang rights website.
Huang was sentenced by the Mianyang Intermediate People's Court to 12 years of imprisonment, after it found him guilty of "leaking state secrets overseas."
The authorities also confiscated Huang's assets up to a value of 20,000 yuan (U.S. $2,900), the court said in a statement.
Huang's mother Pu Wenqing said the sentencing hearing had lasted just five minutes on Monday.
"They sentenced him to 12 years in just five minutes, with no lawyers present," Pu said in an audio message after the hearing.
"I didn't know they would be sentencing him, and they didn't inform me. I had written to apply for a pass to attend court, but they never got back to me," she said.
"I want to leave my home and go to Mianyang today, but there are a lot of people on guard outside, and I am under house arrest and can't leave my home," she said.
A friend of Huang's said he had indicated that he would appeal the verdict and sentence.
Repeated calls to the Mianyang Intermediate People's Court rang unanswered during office hours on Monday.
'Miscarriage of justice'
Huang's former defense attorney Sui Muqing said the harsh sentence wasn't surprising, coming as as it did amid a nationwide crackdown on non-government organizations (NGOs).
"The harsh sentence handed down to Huang Qi is in keeping with the charges the authorities decided to press," Sui said. "Such charges would always result in a harsh penalty."
"The so-called secrets he is alleged to have leaked had a security designation of top secret, and sentencing starts at 10 years for leaking top secret documents overseas," he said.
Another former lawyer of Huang's, Zhang Zanning, said the case should never have been brought in the first place.
"It's not just that the sentence was too harsh; the whole case is a miscarriage of justice," Zhang told RFA. "In my experience, the original sentence is always upheld on appeal, so there's not much point in it, but the defendant should still see the process through to the end."
"They should appeal even if it's rejected, because it's a question of protecting your own interests," he said.
Sacrifice for others
A Sichuan-based rights activist who gave only her surname Chen said Huang had effectively sacrificed himself to fight for the rights of others.
"It's such a shame, because everything he reported on [at Tianwang] was standing up for us petitioners; he really cared about us ... and wanted the authorities to pay attention to us, and resolve our problems," Chen said.
"How could he have come across state secrets just running a website, sitting at home on his computer?"
She said fellow rights activists are also extremely concerned about Huang's health.
"Oh my God, I couldn't see him lasting another five years in there, let alone 12," she said. "He doesn't get any rest and life is tough in there, so it's bound to have an effect."
In danger of dying
Huang, 56, stood trial in January at the Mianyang Intermediate People's Court on charges of "leaking state secrets" and "leaking state secrets overseas."
He was recently identified by Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) as one of 10 citizen journalists in danger of dying in detention.
Huang, who founded the Tianwang rights website, has repeatedly denied the charges and refused to "confess."
Huang's Tianwang website had a strong track record of highlighting petitions and complaints against official wrongdoing, and injustices meted out to the most vulnerable in society, including forced evictees, parents of children who died in the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake, and other peaceful critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Pu Wenqing, 85, has been a vocal campaigner for Huang's release on urgent medical grounds, and says the charges against him are politically motivated, with no evidence to back them up.
She was forcibly detained and pushed to the ground by authorities in Beijing on Dec. 7, 2018 after traveling there to press her son's case, and was incommunicado for several weeks afterwards.
Reported by Wong Lok-to for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.