By Sui-Lee Wee
BEIJING (Reuters) - China sentenced four activists to jail for up to three-and-a-half years on Friday for urging officials to reveal their assets, a lawyer said, the latest convictions in a crackdown on dissent that has drawn international criticism.
The sentences mark China's latest rebuff of the West's condemnation of what it calls the suppression of free expression that some rights groups say is the worst in recent years.
Ding Jiaxi was sentenced to three-and-a-half years, Zhao Changqing got a two-and-a-half year sentence and Li Wei and Zhang Baocheng got two-year terms, the Haidian court in Beijing said on its microblog. They were charged with "gathering a crowd to disturb public order", which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
But Sui Muqing, a lawyer representing Ding, said the real reason for the convictions was that the activists had pressed for government officials to disclose their assets.
"It's nothing but an announcement to the world that we can't mention asset disclosure and that calling on officials to disclose their assets is a crime," Sui told Reuters by telephone.
Sui said Ding would appeal. On Thursday, court officials told Sui he was not allowed to represent Ding and attend the sentencing, which Sui said was illegal.
Court officials were not available for comment.
The Chinese leadership under President Xi Jinping has been pushing efforts against pervasive corruption, which Xi has warned could undermine Communist Party rule.
But at the same time, the government is wary of any challenge to its rule, which is how authorities apparently see calls from activists for officials to declare their wealth.
The convictions came a week after a court upheld a four-year jail sentence against prominent rights activist Xu Zhiyong, on the same charge of "gathering a crowd to disturb public order", sparking criticism from the United States, European Union and rights groups.
The government has waged a year-long drive against Xu's "New Citizens' Movement" of which the four activists sentenced on Friday were members. The group advocates working within the system for change, including urging officials to reveal assets.
Diplomats were shut out of Friday's sentencing, one said. Policemen surrounded the court and bundled about 20 group supporters into a van.
Raphael Droszewski, a first secretary at the European Union delegation to China, said the EU was concerned about Friday's sentencings and people were "being prosecuted in relation with their work for advocacy for the rule of law, social justice and fight against corruption".
"We ask for all people detained for expressing peaceful views to be released," he told Reuters by telephone.
Authorities have shown no sign of agreeing to demands for asset disclosures and at least 20 anti-graft activists have been detained or jailed.
Xi's administration has ratcheted up pressure on dissent, clamping down on critics on the Internet and tightening curbs on journalists.
On Monday, the Foreign Ministry told the United States to stop "gesticulating" in its criticism of China's treatment of dissidents.
Police accused the four activists of organizing and carrying out "street political activities", from displaying banners to making speeches urging declaration of assets, according to a copy of Li's arrest notice.
Ding, a lawyer based in Beijing, was in charge of "overall coordination" while Li, who is unemployed, was responsible for collecting information and organizing activists, the notice said.
Zhao, who has been jailed three times for pro-democracy activities, was said to have organized dinner gatherings where citizens discussed the disclosure campaign.
(Additional reporting by Joseph Campbell; Editing by Robert Birsel)