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HUAIROU, China (Reuters) - A Chinese court on Sunday sentenced the brother-in-law of jailed Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo to 11 years in prison on charges of fraud in a case that rights activists have called another example of official retribution on the Liu family.
Supporters of Liu Hui say his case was trumped up, aimed at thwarting the increasing attention by the rights community on the plight of Liu Xia, who has remained under effective house arrest since her husband Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Prize in 2010.
The court in Huairou, a one-hour drive northeast of Beijing, convicted Liu Hui, a manager in a real estate company in the southern city of Shenzhen, on charges of defrauding a man called Zhang Bing of 3 million yuan ($490,000) with another colleague, lawyer Mo Shaoping told reporters.
"As Liu Hui's defense attorney, I definitely do not approve of this verdict, because we see this fundamentally as a civil issue, and it fundamentally does not constitute criminal fraud. Also, there is not sufficient evidence," Mo said.
Liu Hui has maintained his innocence, according to his lawyers.
In a rare statement to media, a weeping Liu Xia told reporters from the front passenger seat of her car as she drove away from the courthouse that she was extremely angry with the verdict and vowed to launch an appeal.
"I absolutely cannot accept this. This is simply persecution," she said. "This is completely an illegal verdict."
Liu Xia said she had "completely lost hope" in the government.
"I can't even leave my house."
After about two minutes, security forced journalists away from the car, which moved off.
Liu Hui was out on bail last September, but then arrested again in January, after several rights activists and foreign reporters forced their way past security guards late last year to visit Liu Xia, one of his other lawyers, Shang Baojun, told Reuters before the verdict.
Raphael Droszewski, a first secretary at the European Union Delegation to China, told reporters outside the courthouse that the EU was deeply concerned by Liu Hui's sentence. He called for Liu Xiaobo's release and the ending of restrictions on Liu Xia.
"As it is clear Liu Xia is under house arrest, the EU urges the Chinese authorities to end all forms of extra legal restriction on her," he said.
The ruling is seen as a setback for hopes for political reform from new Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose government has detained anti-corruption activists and tightened free expression on the Internet following his appointment in March.
"Everything related to the Liu Xiaobo case previously could have been seen as the legacy of the previous leadership," said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group.
"But with this sentence the new leadership buys into this suppression and persecution of the family. It deems the prospect unlikely that the government is amenable to the release of Liu Xiaobo, or will make any concessions on the case."
The case will also renew international criticism of the plight of Liu Xiaobo's family.
The verdict was handed down within hours of Xi and U.S. President Barack Obama completing an informal summit in California. U.S. and European diplomats were present outside the courthouse in Huairou, a one-hour drive northeast of Beijing.
Speaking in California after the summit, China's top diplomat, State Councilor Yang Jiechi defended the country's achievements in human rights as "there for all to see".
"With China's economic and social development, human rights causes in China will enjoy even greater progress in the future," Yang told reporters, though he did not refer directly to the Liu Hui trial.
Liu Xiaobo, a veteran dissident involved in the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests crushed by the Chinese army, was jailed for 11 years in 2009 on subversion charges for organizing a petition urging the overthrow of one-party rule.
His wife Liu Xia is rarely allowed out and is almost never allowed to receive visitors. She has not been convicted of any crime.
($1 = 6.1335 Chinese yuan)
Additional reporting by Maxim Duncan and Sui-Lee Wee, and John Ruwitch in RANCHO MIRAGE, California; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Ron Popeski