BEIJING (AP) — A Beijing court sentenced a veteran Chinese journalist to seven years in prison Friday on charges of leaking a document detailing the Communist Party leadership's resolve to aggressively target civil society and press freedom as a threat to its monopoly on power.
The sentence against Gao Yu, 71, comes amid a widening clampdown on free speech that highlights the gap between China's vision of rule of law and Western notions of civil liberties and judicial fairness. The verdict appears to confirm the authenticity of the leaked document, deemed a state secret, which had been reported since June 2013, but never was discussed openly by the leadership.
It verifies widely held assumptions about Communist Party leader Xi Jinping's distrust of any social organization outside party control, as recently manifested in the more-than monthlong detentions of five women's rights activists who planned to start a public awareness campaign about sexual harassment.
Gao had denied the charges, which could have carried a life sentence.
Gao's lawyer Mo Shaoping said Gao was convicted of leaking state secrets by giving the strategy paper, known as Document No. 9, to an overseas media group. The document argued for aggressive curbs on the spread of Western democracy, universal values, civil society and press freedom, which the party considers a threat to its rule.
Another of Gao's lawyers, Shang Baojun, said Gao did not speak during the verdict and sentencing, but told her brother, Gao Wei, that she could not accept the result. "We will definitely appeal," Shang said.
Speaking to The Associated Press, Gao Wei said his sister appeared thinner and frailer than before her detention a year ago.
The court seemed to disregard the defense and heard only the prosecution, Gao Wei said, a common complaint in such cases where the outcome is usually determined before the court meets.
"I'm very angry and concerned for my sister," he said.
Police patrolled the perimeter of Beijing's No. 3 Intermediate Court, where the verdict was delivered. Journalists and foreign diplomats gathered at the court, but were denied entry to the hearing.
"We're obviously disappointed with the verdict," said U.S. Embassy First Secretary Dan Biers.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf called for Gao's immediate release and for China to respect its international human rights commitments.
"The conviction of this veteran journalist is part of a disturbing pattern of government action against public interest lawyers, Internet activists, journalists, religious leaders and others who peacefully question official Chinese policies and actions," Harf told reporters.
Gao, who wrote about politics, economics and social issues for media in Hong Kong and overseas, has already served time in prison on state secrets charges more than two decades ago.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei, when asked about the verdict at a briefing Friday, said that every citizen in China is "entitled to all kinds of basic rights and interests as stipulated by the constitution," and that Gao's case was handled according to law.
"Other countries have no right to interfere with that. We hope other countries will respect China's judicial sovereignty," Hong said.
In a statement, Amnesty International said that Gao was the victim of vaguely worded and arbitrary state secrets law that is often used against activists to quell freedom of expression.
The Hong Kong magazine to which Gao is alleged to have leaked the document, Minjing Monthly, issued a statement reiterating that the charges were false. The magazine first reported on the document in August 2013.
It suggested the document already had been circulated at the time when Gao is alleged to have leaked it. It also said the information contained neither military nor economic secrets, but was merely a "guidance" on ideological matters.
"This unjust judgment of an outstanding Chinese journalist utterly destroys Xi Jinping's commitment to 'rule according to law,'" the magazine said.
Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.