BEIJING (Reuters) - A court in China sentenced an activist to seven and a half years in prison on Wednesday for subverting state power, state media reported, the latest jailing linked to a crackdown on human rights lawyers.
President Xi Jinping's administration has tightened its grip on almost every aspect of civil society since 2012, citing the need to improve national security and stability.
Dozens of lawyers and activists associated with the Beijing Fengrui law firm, which has represented several high-profile clients, have been swept up in the crackdown and held since July last year, triggering international criticism.
State media has accused the firm and its associates of orchestrating protests outside courts and politicizing ordinary legal cases in order to attract international attention.
Activist Hu Shigen, 60, sentenced in the northeastern city of Tianjin, was associated with the law firm.
The official Xinhua news agency cited prosecutors as saying he had used his "illegal religious activities" at an underground church as a platform to "spread ideology of subverting state power".
On Tuesday, Tianjin authorities convicted another prominent activist Zhai Yanmin, 55, on similar charges. They are expected to prosecute other associates of the firm, including director Zhou Shifeng and activist Gou Hongguo.
Hu encouraged Zhai to organize professional petitioners to "cause chaos" and "fire-up hatred for the government", Xinhua said.
"I wanted to discredit the courts, public security and the government," the news agency cited Hu as saying, adding that he was "deeply involved with foreign anti-China forces".
"The defendant and defenders did not object to any evidence present by prosecutors," Xinhua said.
The court did not answer telephone calls seeking comment.
The U.S. embassy in Beijing called on China to release Hu and the other activists, saying it was disappointed that Hu had been convicted on the "vague and apparently politically motivated charge".
"The United States remains concerned by the Chinese government's continuing efforts to harass, intimidate and prosecute defense lawyers and human rights activists for their work," the embassy said in a statement to Reuters.
China rejects any criticism of its human rights record, saying it adheres to the rule of law and violators can expect to be punished.
Its judicial system is strictly controlled by the ruling Communist Party, however, and generally do not challenge its accusations.
U.S. legislators in July criticized China's detention of the lawyers, a year after the crackdown against them began, while Germany urged China to live up to its human rights obligations.
Reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Robert Birsel