A Chinese court sentenced a veteran dissident who organized a pro-democracy activist network to 10 years' imprisonment Monday for inciting subversion, his wife said, the second heavy punishment for a dissident in recent days.
The stiff sentences come near the end of a year in which the Chinese government has used various means to silence dissent, from lengthy imprisonment to months of disappearances, in a crackdown aimed at preventing Arab Spring-style uprisings.
A court in the southern city of Guiyang found Chen Xi guilty of the charge of "incitement to subvert state power" for 36 essays he wrote and posted online, his wife said by phone.
The United Nations Human Rights office said it was alarmed by the sentence handed down to Chen and other similarly harsh sentences given to other Chinese dissidents in recent days.
Chen maintained his innocence but will not appeal the verdict, said his wife, Zhang Qunxuan.
"This is utterly absurd," Zhang said. "Chen Xi told the court it did not take into consideration the things he has written as a whole, and has interpreted his words out of context. But they have power and they don't listen."
"The court said he was a repeat offender and also that this is a very serious crime," she said. Chen was active in the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests and was sentenced to three years in prison, and several years after that, he was jailed for 10 years on charges of counterrevolutionary offenses, Zhang said.
His sentence comes three days after another veteran activist, Chen Wei, a dissident in the southwestern city of Suining, was sentenced to nine years' jail for the same offense.
The lengthy sentences against the two, who are not related, are in line with the Chinese government's long practice of punishing heavily veteran activists who have refused to give up despite decades of harassment.
Ravina Shamdasani, a spokeswoman for the United Nations Human Rights office, said the U.N. was concerned about the harsh sentences given to both Chen Wei and Chen Xi, as well as the news this month that activist lawyer Gao Zhizheng had been jailed for three years after allegedly violating his parole.
"We are alarmed at what appears to be a very unfortunate trend and a pattern of severe restrictions on the activities of human rights defenders and freedom of expression in China," Shamdasani said in an email.
The government crackdown on democracy activists and critics of the communist leadership appears to have worsened after anonymous online calls urged Chinese to imitate the uprisings of North Africa and the Middle East earlier this year.
"The fear factor _ the government's panic over sparks of the Arab uprising _ is no doubt driving the severe punishment of its critics," said Renee Xia, international director of Chinese Human Rights Defenders. "But suppression of views and expression will not address the root causes of social unrest."
Other recently jailed veteran dissidents include Liu Xianbin, a democracy activist who has previously spent a decade in prison and was given another 10 year sentence in March. On Christmas day in 2009, Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in prison for co-authoring Charter 08, which called for an end to single-party rule and advocated democratic political reforms.
In Chen Xi's case, the subversion charge is also likely aimed at punishing and silencing him for his work with the Guizhou Human Rights Forum, a network of activists that organized human rights and pro-democracy activities in the southern Chinese region.
"The arrest and sentencing of dissidents is essentially motivated by a logic of information control, that the government wants to prevent the exposing of the real human rights situation on the ground," said Human Rights Watch Asia researcher Nicholas Bequelin. "Therefore people who report those kinds of news are generally the ones who get arrested."
Several of the members of the network have served prison sentences for related activities, according to the Chinese Human Rights Defenders.
Chen Xi was arrested Nov. 29 and charged in the southern province of Guizhou. Calls to the Guiyang Intermediate People's Court, where the trial was held, rang unanswered Monday.
The Chinese government has held these trials during the Christmas period to limit the criticism it receives for the heavy punishments being handed down, Bequelin said.
"It does work really well because there's no diplomatic activity around Christmas," he said. "By the time the diplomats get back to their desks, the sequence of events has moved on already. Therefore it does ensure the government receives less criticism for this."