A court in the northern city of Tianjin has convicted the first of four rights activists charged with subversion of state power. Cases have been shrouded in secrecy with defendants' families kept in the dark.
China's official Xinhua News Agency reported that 55-year-old legal activist Zhai Yanmin, who was arrested last July as part of a nationwide campaign targeting activist lawyers, was found guilty Tuesday following a partially closed trial.
Dozens of lawyers and activists associated with the prominent Beijing Fengrui law firm have also been swept up in the crackdown and held since last July, triggering international concern from rights groups.
State media has accused the firm and its associates of orchestrating protests outside courts and politicizing normal legal cases in order to attract international attention and embarrass the government.
Police immediately cordoned off the Tianjin No. 2 Intermediate People's Court a day after protesters flanked by foreign diplomats demanded more information about the cases.
The court sentenced Zhai Yanmin, a resident of Beijing, to three years in prison with a four-year reprieve. The report said he would not appeal.
Prosecutors told the court that Zhai, together with three others - Hu Shigen, Zhou Shifeng, Li Heping - plotted to subvert state power and had "established a systematic ideology, method and steps to achieve it," the official Xinhua news agency reported.
The defendant's wife, Li Ermin, told the AFP news agency earlier this month that Beijing police beat her after she travelled to nearby Tianjin to try to locate her jailed husband. Her friends say she was detained Sunday and has been held incommunicado since.
Many reporters denied access
With the courthouse blocked off Tuesday, accredited journalists were ushered into a local hotel where a transcription of the court proceedings was being shown in a screening room.
The ad hoc press center in the hotel lobby, which included snacks and a work space, was apparently designed to keep reporters away from court proceedings.
President Xi Jinping's administration has tightened control over civil society since 2012, citing national security and internal stability concerns.
Yanmin is just the first activist to be tried amid unprecedented secrecy.
More than a dozen others remain jailed, their legal status uncertain, as their lawyers and families have been denied routine access.
Rights activist denounces co-defendants
The trial comes a day after China released a prominent human rights lawyer on bail amid protests in the same city. Wang Yu, who was detained last July, was set free following videos of her alleged confession was posted on the websites of two Hong Kong media outlets.
In the videos, she renounced her legal work and said "foreign forces" were using her law firm to undermine and discredit the Chinese government.
Wen Donghai, one of her defense attorneys, told The Associated Press on Monday that he had only learned from media reports that his client had been released - he had not seen her.
jar/kl (AP, dpa, AFP)