One of China’s leading dissidents was sentenced to 11 years in jail on Friday for “inciting subversion of state power”, charges which have prompted the sharpest confrontation over human rights in recent years between western governments and Beijing.
Liu Xiaobo, a former university professor, had pleaded not guilty to the charges, which are based on six articles he published on the internet and his role in organising Charter 08, a petition demanding the end of one-party rule in China
At a time when China’s growing power and influence have muted some criticism of its human rights record – it revised up its 2008 growth to 9.6 per cent on Friday – Mr Liu’s trial has led to a rare full-blown argument between Beijing and western governments.
Diplomats from 15 foreign embassies tried to observe the proceedings at Mr Liu’s trial on Wednesday at a court in Beijing but were refused entry. They included officials from the US, Canada, the European Union and the Czech Republic, the country whose Charter 77 movement led by Vaclav Havel was the inspiration for Charter 08.
After failing to get access to the trial, Gregory May, a US diplomat, read a statement saying: “We call on the government of China to release him [Mr Liu] immediately and to respect the rights of all Chinese citizens to peacefully express their political views.”
China reacted angrily to the international criticism of Mr Liu’s trial. ”Liu Xiaobo is a Chinese citizen, and the Chinese legal system is handling the case independently by law, so this is entirely an internal Chinese affair,” said Jiang Yu, a foreign ministry spokeswoman on Thursday.
”Some countries or their embassy personnel expressed so-called statements on this matter, which we regard as crude meddling in China’s internal affairs. China expresses strong dissatisfaction with this, and demands that these countries respect China’s judicial sovereignty and not meddle again in China’s domestic affairs,” she said.
Although Mr Liu’s lawyers had warned he could go to jail for 15 years, legal experts said the 11-year sentence was unusually harsh and that three years was a more common sentence in similar cases.
Human rights groups said that announcing the verdict on December 25 followed a pattern of Beijing ruling on sensitive human rights cases during the Christmas holidays when western public opinion was distracted.
“This is the most politically-controlled case in a decade,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government itself seems to have no confidence that the trial could sustain any kind of international scrutiny and it has all the hallmarks of a decision taken at the very highest level.”
Charter 08, which was published last year after being initially signed by 300 Chinese academics, lawyers and former officials, calls for the introduction of multi-party democracy. Since then, 10,000 people have signed the document.
Mr Liu, who will be 54 on Monday, who spent several years in prison and labour camps after the 1989 Tiananmen protests and has been in custody for 12 months before this week’s trial, is the only signatory of Charter 08 to have been arrested.
However, his trial comes amid signs the Chinese authorities are becoming even less tolerant of dissent, including new restrictions on setting up internet sites. On Monday Zhang Boshu, an academic who has criticized official policy in Tibet and has called for political reform, said he had been dismissed by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a leading think-tank.
Mr Liu’s trial took place in the same small room at the Beijing First Intermediate People’s Court where activist Hu Jia was sentenced to three and a half years in jail on similar charges last year.