BEIJING, April 3, 2008 -- A Beijing court has sentenced Hu Jia, one of China's most vocal dissidents to 3½ years in prison plus another year's banishment from political activism for "inciting subversion of state power."
Journalists and envoys from foreign embassies, including the United States, were denied access to the courtroom and had their identification cards checked by police outside the court complex.
The verdict said Hu's interviews with foreign journalists as well as articles he wrote and were distributed online were libelous.
According to the government-controlled Xinhua news agency, Hu was granted leniency because of his "confession of crime and acceptance of punishment."
In China, challenging state power is considered a serious crime, usually punishable by a minimum of five years in prison. Hu's defense lawyers said that he admitted some of the criticisms of the government were excessive. Still, Hu pleaded not guilty to the charge.
"In the end, I think that he came to accept that some of his statements were contrary to the law as it stands," said defense lawyer Li Jinsong. "So to some extent he accepted the prosecution's allegations."
"We still think the charges don't hold water," Hu's other lawyer Li Fangping said.
The Face of Chinese Activism
For several years, Hu was a de facto spokesman for a range of issues in the dissident community. He began his career as an environmental activist, but soon took on other issues, including AIDS awareness, land rights for farmers and greater autonomy for Tibet.
He and his wife, Zeng Jinyan, had been under virtual house arrest for more than 200 days when he was quietly whisked away from his home Dec. 27, along with his computer.
Despite intense international pressure from human rights groups and the U.S. government, Hu was tried for challenging the state -- a charge that legal experts say is used as a broad instrument to silence free speech.
Hu had become a de facto poster boy for human rights advocacy in China. Critics say his imprisonment sends a clear signal that China has not lived up to its promise of improving human rights ahead of the Olympic Games.
"We interpret this as the government having decided that it is now a crime in China to criticize the Olympics," said Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch.
When asked about the case during a news conference last month, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao denied that dissidents were being arrested before the Olympics.
"I need to emphasize China is a country of the rule of law and all these problems will be solved according to the law," said Wen.
"As for critics' view that China is trying to increase its efforts to arrest dissidents ahead the Olympic Games, I think all these accusations are unfounded," he said.
But Hu is the second dissident in less than a month to be sentenced to prison for criticizing the Chinese government. Yang Chunlin, who called for human rights to take precedence over the Olympics, was sentenced to five years in late March for the same crime.
Arresting Dissidents in Time for the Olympics
"The Olympics is considered to be the political No. 1 priority and the authorities will take all action, all means necessary to properly hold the Olympics Games and present the image of a harmonious society," said Dean Peng, another dissident interviewed by ABC News.
After the Hu verdict, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing issued a statement, saying it was "dismayed" by the decision and the charge against Hu was "specious."
"In this Olympic year, we urge China to seize the opportunity to put its best face forward and take steps to improve its record on human rights and religious freedom," the statement read.
While not calling for an Olympics boycott, Human Rights Watch is calling on President Bush to increase pressure on the Chinese in the lead-up to the Games. The president is planning to attend the opening ceremony.
"It's absolutely crucial that people like President Bush raise these issues now," said Richardson. "Because if they don't raise these issues now, it's going to be harder to do after August, when these promises that China made to the international community essentially expire."
Outside the courthouse, Zeng, Hu's wife, wept as she spoke to reporters. She's worried about her husband's health because he suffers from cirrhosis of the liver. Zeng and her 4-month-old daughter have been under de facto house arrest since Hu was taken into custody.
"Think of it," she said. "It will be the year 2011 when he is out. My child will already be 4 years old."
Hu's mother, who declined to give her name, said she is still proud of what her son has done to further human rights issues.
"He said [to me], 'if I don't shed blood, who will?'" she said. "'If I am not imprisoned, who will be?'"