BEIJING (AP) -- A court in eastern China on Thursday sentenced to up to 6 ½ years in prison three activists who were part of a nascent civil rights movement that has urged government officials to publicly disclose their assets.
The sentences, decried by other dissidents as excessively heavy, reflect the increasingly hard line that China's Communist Party has taken against political dissent, no matter how peacefully expressed or loosely organized. Party leaders have been wary of any independent social force with the potential to threaten the party's rule by mobilizing groups of people and have sought to quash the loosely knit New Citizens Movement that the three activists were part of.
The district court in the city of Xinyu sentenced labor activists Liu Ping and Wei Zhongping to 6 1/2 years' imprisonment each while another activist, Li Sihua, was given three years, said Liu's daughter Liao Minyue.
"We don't recognize the legitimacy of this ruling," Liao said. "I don't think these actions will stop people from pursuing freedom, instead, they must know that the more they oppress, the more there will be resistance."
The sentences deal another blow to China's beleaguered activist community, following a comprehensive clampdown in recent months on dissidents in the run-up to the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square military suppression of pro-democracy protests.
The three activists, who were arrested last year, were convicted of "creating a disturbance," a vaguely defined offense that has been increasingly used to lock up activists. In this instance, the charge stems from a photo that circulated online of them gathering privately and holding signs calling for the release of other activists who were part of the campaign to demand greater transparency.
Liu and Wei were convicted of an additional public order offense and of "using an evil cult to undermine law enforcement" related to an online post Liu wrote last year about a trial of members of the Falun Gong, a spiritual group that has been banned in China.
Supporters have called the charges absurd, while the activists' lawyers protested irregularities in the proceedings and alleged that Liu was tortured during several months of detention.
Liu's lawyer Si Weijiang said there was no legal basis for the convictions. "The evidence shows the three of them are clearly not guilty, but the authorities were determined to convict them," Si said.
In Liu and Wei's cases, their sentences were heavier than the four years in prison imposed on the group's founder Xu Zhiyong in January.
The prosecutions are part of a wide crackdown since early 2013 on political expression that has seen the arrests and detentions of prominent activists, intellectuals, rights lawyers, bloggers and advocates for minority rights.
"The signal they want to send to all political dissidents, regardless of whether you are guilty or innocent, is this: They will convict and sentence you," Si said.
The crackdown has raised concerns among Western governments and human rights groups, with American and European diplomats making unsuccessful attempts to attend the trials of New Citizens activists in Xinyu and elsewhere.
Critics have railed against the arrests and imprisonment of New Citizens campaigners as signs of hypocrisy in the party leadership's stated objectives of wanting to root out widespread official graft. The crackdown reflects the increasingly conservative political atmosphere under President Xi Jinping, who came to power in late 2012.
"The charges against these activists were preposterous from the very beginning," said William Nee, Amnesty International's China researcher. "The harsh sentences are just the latest moves in the politically motivated crackdown on the New Citizens Movement. They are prisoners of conscience and should be released immediately and unconditionally."
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