China sentenced a prominent activist to three years in jail with a four year reprieve on Tuesday for subverting the state, in a case linked to a crackdown on human rights lawyers.
President Xi Jinping’s administration has tightened control over almost every aspect of civil society since 2012, citing the need to buttress national security and stability.
Dozens of lawyers and activists associated with the Beijing Fengrui law firm, which has represented several high-profile clients, have been swept up in the crackdown and held since July last year, triggering concern in Western capitals.
Authorities in the northern city of Tianjin said Zhai Yanmin, 55, “had long been influenced by anti-China forces, and gradually adopted ideology to overthrow the current state system”, according to what appeared to be partial transcripts of court proceedings released by the official Xinhua news agency.
Zhai repeatedly posted views online subverting the government and had worked with lawyers, including Zhou Shifeng and Li Heping to hype cases and “systematically undermine state power”, Xinhua cited prosecutors as saying.
Those actions “seriously harmed state security and social stability”, it said.
The reprieve accompanying the sentence means that Zhai should be released, another well-known human rights lawyer, Li Fangping, told Reuters, though Zhai is likely to be strictly monitored.
Zhai’s reported admission of guilt was probably aimed at “blackening his name”, Li added.
The court did not answer repeated telephone calls seeking comment.
Rights groups and activists say Zhai was not allowed to retain his own lawyer and was represented by a government-appointed one. It is not clear who that is.
The charges of subverting state power referred to Zhai’s role in coordinating demonstrations and sit-ins outside detention centres, courts and at other sites around the country, Xinhua said.
Defenders “did not object” to evidence presented in the case, Xinhua said, and cited Zhai as saying he used systemic methods to subvert the government.
Prosecutors also said Zhai had participated in illegal church activities run by Hu Shigen, another activist expected to go on trial this week.
China consistently rejects any criticism of its human rights record, saying it adheres to the rule of law, which all are equal under the law and that those who break the law can expect to be punished.
Authorities in July released on bail pending trial prominent rights lawyer Wang Yu, who had been held for state subversion, state media said.
The Global Times, a Party-run tabloid, said Wang had told the paper she was “ashamed and remorseful” for her actions, though rights groups have condemned in the past such confessions in state media which they say are coerced.