BEIJING (Reuters) - A Buddhist Chinese dissident outspoken on Tibet and other sensitive topics was jailed for three-and-a-half years on Thursday, a conviction likely to become a focus of rights campaigns ahead of the Beijing Olympics.
Hu Jia, 34, was found guilty of "inciting subversion of state power" for criticizing the ruling Communist Party, a verdict that drew quick condemnation from the United States.
"In this Olympic year, we urge China to seize the opportunity to put its best face forward and take steps to improve its record on human rights and religious freedom," the U.S. Embassy said in a statement.
The official Xinhua news agency said Hu had made a "confession of crime and acceptance of punishment", leading the court to issue a relatively light sentence. Hu's lawyers said he had acknowledged "excesses".
"In the end, I think that he came to accept that some of his statements were contrary to the law as it stands," said defense lawyer Li Jinsong. Hu has 10 days starting on Friday to decide whether to appeal, but Li said he was unlikely to do so.
The "inciting subversion" charge can attract a jail term of five years or longer, and before the hearing Hu's other lawyer, Li Fangping, said a long sentence was likely.
After the sentencing he denounced it as nonetheless unjust.
"It's the defense position that citizens have the right to free speech," Li Fangping told reporters outside the court.
"The law on inciting subversion of state power doesn't have a clear boundary, but the Constitution guarantees citizens freedom of speech."
China's Foreign Ministry defended the verdict and said critics were meddling in the country's internal affairs.
Another Chinese dissident, Yang Chunlin, who called for human rights to take precedence over the Olympic Games, was sentenced to five years in jail in late March for the same crime.
The court heard that from August 2006 to October 2007, Hu published articles on overseas-run Web sites, made comments in interviews with foreign media and "repeatedly instigated other people to subvert the state's political power and socialist system", Xinhua said.
DOZENS OF WELL-WISHERS
Dozens of well-wishers gathered outside the court to express support for Hu and rowdily air their own grievances, milling around with the foreign reporters and diplomats who were excluded from entering the court.
"Hu Jia is a hero to us because he stood up to speak out, so we should also speak out," said one of the supporters, Li Hai.
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour voiced concern at Hu's conviction.
"We continue to be concerned about a number of cases including Hu Jia, in which it seems national security issues are being used as grounds to curtail social activism by human rights defenders," said her spokesman Rupert Colville.
Mark Allison of Amnesty International added: "This verdict is a slap in the face for Hu Jia and a warning to any other activists in China who dare to raise human rights concerns publicly."
Starting with advocacy for rural AIDS sufferers, Hu emerged as one of the nation's most vocal advocates of democratic rights, religious freedom and self-determination for Tibet, recently shaken by protests and a security crackdown.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice raised Hu's case when in Beijing in February, and the European Union and other Western governments have also pressed China on the matter.
Hu's relatively rapid trial suggested authorities wanted to get it out of the way well before the Beijing Olympics in August, said Joshua Rosenzweig of the Duihua Foundation, a San Francisco-based group that works to free Chinese political prisoners.
Hu was detained by police in late December after spending more than 200 days under house arrest in a Beijing apartment complex.
His wife, Zeng Jinyan, who has also often criticized the Chinese government, and their infant daughter remain under house arrest and their telephone is cut off.
Zeng attended the hearing, emerging with her baby from the courthouse visibly upset before being whisked away in a police vehicle.
State security criminal cases, such as Hu's, have been rising, with 742 last year, John Kamm of the Duihua Foundation told reporters in Beijing.
With mounting arrests in Tibet after protests and unrest there, Kamm said 2008 was likely to be "a bumper year" for such cases.La « société harmonieuse » sert de paravent à la pire autocratie. Le masque de la RPC est définitivement tombé, et le visage qu'il dissimulait est hideux.