BEIJING (Reuters) - A court convicted one of China’s most prominent rights lawyers on Tuesday of “inciting ethnic hatred” with posts criticizing the government, handing down a suspended sentence that means he avoids jail but will not practise law again.
Activists said the three-year suspended sentence for Pu Zhiqiang would serve as a strong reminder to other rights lawyers that the Communist Party, currently engaged in a severe clampdown on dissent, would brook no challenge to its rule.
The Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court said Pu was being punished on the charges of inciting ethnic hatred and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, state television CCTV said on its microblog.
The charges were based on seven microblog posts that he had published online, criticizing China’s ethnic policy in the troubled western region of Xinjiang and several officials, according to his lawyers.
Pu, 50, was sentenced to three years in prison but given a three-year reprieve, said lawyer Shang Baojun.
The suspended sentence means Pu does not have to serve prison time as long as he stays under formal probation during that period, legal experts said.
Pu was released into “residential surveillance” - a form of detention in China that is used to keep dissidents in sites away from the public eye - where he will remain for 10 days before being allowed to go back to his home in Beijing, said Mo Shaoping, a second lawyer for Pu.
Mo said Pu was allowed to be with his wife but declined to disclose Pu’s exact location.
Pu has represented many well-known dissidents, including artist Ai Weiwei and activists of the “New Citizens’ Movement”, a group that has called on Chinese leaders to make their wealth public. He was the most prominent activist swept up in what rights groups say is the most severe clampdown on dissent in two decades in China.
“Pu isn’t guilty,” Ai told Reuters from Italy by telephone. “He should receive an apology from the state and compensation.”
Pu had spent nearly 19 months in detention before his trial last week, which lasted just over three hours. His lawyers said he could have faced eight years in prison.
Shang said Pu was relieved and would not appeal.
“He said he thanks everyone and he wants to rest,” Shang said, recounting a private conversation Pu had with his lawyers after the verdict.
“He also said if there’s an opportunity, history will deliver a true judgment.”
State news agency Xinhua said the court decided “to impose a lenient punishment” due to “the fact that the defendant Pu Zhiqiang truthfully confessed to the facts of the crime and positively pleaded guilty”.
Shang said Pu had not pleaded guilty.
“Having a criminal conviction means he can definitely never practise law again,” said lawyer Liang Xiaojun.
The U.S. Embassy in Beijing said it was concerned about the suspended sentence. In Washington, the State Department called the sentencing disturbing and called on China to “vacate Mr Pu’s conviction immediately and unconditionally.”
“We urge the Chinese authorities to restore all of Mr. Pu’s rights and permit him to resume his work as one of China’s pre-eminent lawyers,” said Benjamin Weber, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei rebuffed the concern, saying foreign governments had to respect China’s judicial sovereignty and not interfere.
Police and plainclothes security officers prevented foreign reporters, Pu’s supporters and diplomats from the United States, the European Union and Switzerland from approaching the court.
It was unclear the extent of the restrictions that would be placed on Pu, though it is likely that he will be placed under police surveillance and prevented from speaking to reporters.
Additional reporting by Adam Rose and Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Nick Macfie and Dan Grebler