Beijing lawyer Xia Lin, whose clients include the artist Ai Weiwei, became the latest human rights activist to go to jail in China after he was sentenced to 12 years in prison for fraud, his lawyer said.
His supporters rejected claims that he had committed fraud and claimed the verdict was part of the ongoing campaign to muzzle human rights lawyers and other activists in China.
Mr Xia's lawyer Wang Zhenyu confirmed his client had been given 12 years in prison, three years deprivation of his political rights and a fine of 120,000 yuan (€16,000). He also had to pay back 4.8 million yuan (€640,000) in money allegedly defrauded.
“The result is unacceptable because according to legal process, Xia Lin is not guilty. But we tried our best efforts. Xia Lin decided to appeal and will file the appeal in coming days,” said Mr Wang.
It is believed to be the longest jail sentence ever received in China by a human rights lawyer.
He was originally detained in November 2014 and charged with fraudulently obtaining 10 million yuan (€1.34 million) to pay off gambling debts, by coercing associates to lend him money. This figure was later reduced to 480,000 yuan (€64,000), his lawyer said.
“We pleaded not guilty. The verdict was lighter than the original charge, as the court reduced the amount from over 10 million yuan down to 4.8 million yuan,” Mr Wang said.
Mr Xia was sentenced by the Beijing No 2 Intermediate Court and the trial opened in June this year.
Under President Xi Jinping, China has seen growing persecution of human rights lawyers and civil society reformers, coupled with tighter control of the media and the internet, and restrictions on social gatherings.
Since July last year, hundreds of lawyers and activists have been detained in what rights groups are calling the “709 Crackdown”, and many are still in custody.
State subversion is the more commonly deployed charge against human rights defenders, but it is also common for dissidents to face other charges. Liu Hui, the brother-in-law of jailed Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo, was given 11 years in jail for fraud in 2013, while Ai Weiwei, whose provocative work has long been a thorn in the side of the establishment, was hit with tax fraud charges.
Mr Xia defended both Ai Weiwei's company and Liu Hui, as well as Deng Yujiao, a Hubei waitress who stabbed a government official to death in self-defence during a sexual assault in a case that made headlines around the country.
He also defended the prominent rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who was his colleague at Huayi Law Firm in Beijing.
Mr Xia was taken away by police two years ago after he said he would defend the rights activist Guo Yushan, who ran a civil society think tank.