BEIJING (AP) — A Chinese court on Friday sentenced three pro-democracy activists to as many as five years in prison on charges of calling for the overthrow of the communist government, human rights groups reported.
The sentences were handed down amid what rights activists and democracy campaigners say is the most intense crackdown on dissent since the bloody suppression of 1989 pro-democracy protests in which hundreds, possibly thousands were killed.
The Guangzhou Intermediate People's Court in the southern city of Guangzhou on Friday gave the heaviest sentence to lawyer Tang Jingling, 44, following a closed-door trial, according to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other rights monitoring organizations.
Activists Wang Qingying, 31, and Yuan Xinting, 44, were sentenced to two-and-a half and three-and-a half years, respectively, the groups said.
Calls to the court rang unanswered and no official statement about the trial was posted on the Internet.
The three were taken into custody in May 2014 amid a sweeping crackdown on dissent coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the June 4, 1989, pro-democracy protests centered on Beijing's Tiananmen Square. The initial charge against them of "creating disturbances" was later upgraded to the more serious one of inciting subversion.
"Today's verdict against the three activists is a gross injustice. Their peaceful and legitimate work never threatened state security, this is solely about the authorities arbitrarily silencing government critics," Patrick Poon, China Researcher at Amnesty International, said in a news release.
Amnesty and the other groups said the men had been beaten by police while in custody and their trials were plagued with irregularities.
The main charges against them were tied to their downloading, printing and distributing texts on democratic transformation and grassroots organizing, the groups said. Amnesty cited the state prosecutor's indictment as accusing them of having "promoted the ideas of civil disobedience . with the goal of overthrowing the socialist system."
Crackdowns on dissent since early last year have especially targeted lawyers and others who have attempted to use Chinese law to assert claims to property, wages, free speech and other basic civil and economic rights. Nearly 300 lawyers and legal staff working on cases deemed politically sensitive have been rounded up for questioning and 16 have been formally arrested, most on state security charges.
President Xi Jinping, who has amassed the most personal power of any Chinese leader in decades, has sought to reassert the Communist Party's absolute authority in fields ranging from national defense to higher education.
That has been accompanied by tighter controls on religious and ethnic minorities, especially among Tibetans and Muslim Uighurs in the northwestern region of Xinjiang.
Christian churches have also been targeted in the eastern coastal province of Zhejiang, including officially recognized congregations belonging to the Communist Party's management bodies that had formerly been exempt from harassment.