Lawyer Xia Lin, who defended artist Ai Weiwei among others, has been jailed for 12 years on fraud charges. It is harshest in a string of sentences for activists and lawyers seen to be working against the state.
The Beijing No. 2 Intermediate Court announced Xia Lin's sentence on fraud charges in what his lawyers believe to be the harshest sentence handed down as part of a recent crackdown focused on activists and lawyers representing them in China.
"The harsh sentence against Xia Lin sends the sternest warning yet to the community of human rights lawyers, who has been under a sustained crackdown in the past year," Maya Wang of Human Rights Watch, commented.
The lawyer had been held in jail for nearly two years before Thursday's announcement.
"We've been striving to defend his innocence," one of Xia's lawyers, Ding Xikui said. "Even one day in prison is too much."
The charges against 46-year-old Xia related to money he had borrowed from friends, who said they had done so freely and brought no complaint. He was accused of defaulting on that debt, although no evidence was presented, his lawyers said. "He had indeed borrowed money from people, but it is just normal borrowing and lending money," Ding confirmed.
Wang Zhengyu, a lawyer also acting for Xia, confirmed his client had been sentenced to 12 years in prison, deprived of political rights for three years and ordered to pay a fine of 120,000 yuan ($18,000/16,140 euros) and to give total compensation of 4.81 million yuan to fraud victims.
"Xia Lin is not guilty. He has decided to appeal the court decision and we will file the appeal in the next few days," Wang said.
Detained since 2014
The Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a coalition of Chinese and international human rights non-governmental organizations, said that Xia was detained in November 2014, as he was about to defend Guo Yushan, the head of the Chinese think tank, the Transition Institute. The Network said Guo had been detained in October of that year for supporting the pro-democracy Occupy Central group in Hong Kong.
The Network also drew attention to the length and legality of the case against Xia: "The numerous legal violations, not least the length of time it took to bring Xia to trial, demonstrate the flimsiness of the authorities' case," researcher Frances Eve said in a statement. "The focus of police interrogations demonstrate that the case was really about his work defending sensitive clients, such as Ai Weiwei, Pu Zhiqiang, and Guo Yushan."
"Authorities violated his basic due process rights and denied him a fair trial. We continue to call for his unconditional release," Eve said.
During his trial, prosecution lawyers had focused on Xia's association with government critics, including artist Ai Weiwei. In 2011 Xia had helped to defend Ai's design company, Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd., against a demand for $1.85 million (1.66 million euros) in back taxes and fines. Ai Weiwei was jailed for 81 days without official charges in 2011 but was released in June 2012 and now lives in Germany.
The government campaign against dissent intensified in the summer of 2015, the start of the so-called "709 crackdown," named after the July 9 date of the operation. Hundreds of activists and lawyers were detained. They included lawyers who had taken on civil rights cases considered sensitive by China's ruling Communist party. Most of the detainees were released but more than a dozen remain in custody while others have been jailed.
jm/msh (Reuters, AP, dpa)