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.
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.