April 8, 2016 / 12:37 PM / a year ago

China jails four supporters of Hong Kong pro-democracy protests

HONG KONG (Reuters) - A court in southern China on Friday jailed four activists who had publicly supported Hong Kong's pro-democracy Occupy Central movement and who had criticized the Chinese Communist Party on social media, a lawyer said.

Two of them, Xie Wenfei and Wang Mo, were sentenced to four-and-a-half years by the intermediate people's court in the city of Guangzhou after having been found guilty of "inciting subversion of state power", their lawyer Chen Keyun told Reuters by telephone.

The Guangzhou Intermediate court declined to give any details of the charges or sentences when contacted by Reuters.

Chen said Xie and Wang had held up placards on a Guangzhou street in support of Hong Kong's youth-led Occupy Central movement that saw tens of thousands block major roads for 79 days in late 2014 to pressure Beijing for full democracy in the Chinese-controlled city.

"This does not constitute any illegal behavior. On the contrary, we think not only were they not inciting subversion to the state's power, but they were actually safeguarding the state's power," said Chen. He denounced the sentence, saying the men should be free to call for universal suffrage as a fundamental right.

The pair had also openly posted messages on Twitter and Weibo criticizing the ruling Communist Party and calling for an end to one-party rule.

Two others, Zhang Rongping and Liang Qinhui, were jailed for four years and one-and-a-half years respectively on similar charges. They, too, had expressed support for Hong Kong's Occupy movement. Their lawyers, however, weren't reachable for comment.

Security was tight outside courthouse with a large number of police vans parked outside. Foreign reporters and diplomats were barred from the courtroom, one witness there told Reuters.

In March, the United States and 11 other countries at the United Nations criticized China's crackdown on human rights and its detentions of lawyers and activists.

Chinese police have detained about 250 human rights lawyers, legal assistants, and activists across the country since a nationwide crackdown began last July, according to the U.N., though a number have since been released.

The former British colony of Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with the promise of wide-ranging autonomy, including an independent legal system and freedom of speech.

Reporting by Teenie Ho and James Pomfret; Editing by John Ruwitch and Nick Macfie

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