A Chinese court jailed a blind human rights activist for four years and three months on Thursday, state media announced, prompting other campaigners to warn of a clampdown on China's “rights defenders”.
Chen Guangcheng, who was tried last Friday without his own lawyers present, drew international attention last year after accusing officials in east China's Shandong province of enforcing late-term abortions in a population control drive.
Chen, 34, was accused of damaging property and disrupting traffic after a protest erupted in his home Dongshigu village in February against his months-long house arrest, but his family and lawyers say the charges were trumped up.
The verdict from Yinan County Court in Shandong came as a shock to Chen's wife, Yuan Weijing, who had not been notified by the court.
“I thought they were going to sentence him even though he's innocent, but I never expected such a heavy sentence,” she told Reuters. “Even if he was guilty, the damage they said happened was small and the law says blind people should be give leniency”.
Chinese activists told Reuters the unexpectedly heavy sentence indicated officials are clamping down on “rights defenders” – a growing network of lawyers, academics and dissidents seeking to expand citizens' freedoms through litigation and Internet-driven campaigns for legal reform.
Chen had educated himself in the law and campaigned for farmers' and blind citizens' rights.
“This sentence was at the extreme of what anybody ever imagined”, said Hu Jia, a Beijing dissident now under house arrest. “It's another attack on the rights defence movement, like the detention of Gao Zhisheng”.
Gao, an outspoken human rights lawyer who has campaigned for the banned Falun Gong spiritual group, was detained by Beijing police after months of being followed by them.
Chen's attorney, Xu Zhiyong, said Chinese courts were supposed to notify the defendant's family and lawyers before a verdict, but they were given no warning.
“We'll certainly appeal against the sentence. Chen Guangcheng is adamant that he's innocent,” Xu told Reuters. “The trial was absurd, and now to have such a heavy sentence delivered this way is just unacceptable”.
Xu and two other defence lawyers were detained on charges of theft as they prepared to defend Chen last week. At a July hearing that was cancelled at the last minute, supporters of Chen said they were beaten by police and hired thugs.
Other Chinese rights activists who have campaigned for Chen's release have been put under house arrest in Beijing, deported from there to distant cities, or gone into hiding.