Authorities in the central Chinese province of Hunan have handed down jail terms of up to 25 years to the relatives and friends of a former ethnic minority official after he criticized corruption in his local government, an overseas rights group said on Friday.
Long Baorong, a popular leader among the Miao ethnic minority who had published an article highly critical of official corruption in July 2010, died soon after being released from jail on medical parole in July 2012.
A month later, police moved to arrest the activist's son-in-law Long Xianyuan and his brother Long Xianjiang, on charges of involvement in "a criminal syndicate," as well as some 50 other members of the same community.
Long Xianyuan was sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment on Monday by a court of Hunan's Jishan city for "participating in a criminal syndicate," while Long Xianjiang was jailed for "organizing and leading a criminal syndicate," the Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) group, which translates and collates reports from Chinese rights groups, said in a statement.
The brothers were also found guilty of "illegal possession of firearms," "fraud in obtaining loans," "forced trade," "intentional injury," "gathering a crowd to disrupt public order," and "drug trafficking," CHRD said in an e-mailed statement.
It said 25 others, the majority of them also ethnic Miao, or Hmong, were handed shorter jail terms for similar offenses by the Xiangxi Tujia and Miao Autonomous Prefecture Intermediate People's Court.
All 27 defendants were tried at the same time in a case that was initially dismissed by the Xiangxi Tujia court at district level.
Tortured by police
At the time, defense lawyers Ma Gangquan and Wang Quanping had argued that their clients had been tortured by police to obtain the confessions that underpinned the state prosecutor's case.
"Both brothers had told the lawyers that police frequently beat them to extract confessions," CHRD said.
On one occasion, Long Xianyuan was suspended from the ceiling by his hands for four days in the Fenghuang County Detention Center, where he was repeatedly beaten during interrogation to prevent him from falling asleep or fainting, and that he almost died, the group said.
"Many of the 50 originally detained in connection to the case reportedly also suffered torture," CHRD said in an e-mailed statement.
The lawyers protested and filed complaints at the Xiangxi Prefecture People's Procuratorate, Politics and Law Committee, and local People's Congress, demanding a judicial review of the court's illegal admission of evidence obtained by torture.
The case was later dismissed, but state prosecutors issued a repeat indictment in July 2014, which eventually led to Monday's sentences.
According to CHRD, all of those convicted of "triad-related crimes" had shown support of Long Baorong during his trial, and had gathered in protest after his death on July 13, 2012, saying he had been denied crucial medical treatment by prison authorities.
"[After this], police classified them as suspected triad members," the group said.
Long Baorong was put under investigation by the "shuanggui" internal party disciplinary system in August 2010 after he wrote a scathing article about official corruption titled "58 Whys."
He was formally arrested in October 2010 and jailed for five years on charges of "fraud" and "embezzlement" in 2011.
"Why is there no political will to investigate corruption?" Long Baorong wrote. "Why must the teachers go on strike?"
"Why are genuinely homeless people denied affordable housing?" he wrote, adding: "Why is it that we can't tell the difference between the police and the criminals?"
China is home to some 9.4 ethnic Miao and Yao, who have their own language and culture and are recognized as the Hmong ethnic group by Vietnam.
The Yao and Miao people were among the rebels during the Miao Rebellions against the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).
The Miao are now concentrated in the south of China, in Guizhou, Hunan, Yunnan, Sichuan, Guangxi, Hainan, Guangdong, and Hubei.
Reported by Luisetta Mudie.