China jails 5 activists who supported Hong Kong pro-democracy protests

A protester holds a poster showing imprisoned mainland Chinese activists during a protest outside the China Liaison Office in Hong Kong, on April 8.
A protester holds a poster showing imprisoned mainland Chinese activists during a protest outside the China Liaison Office in Hong Kong, on April 8.PHOTO: EPA

BEIJING (AFP/REUTERS) - A court in southern China on Friday (April 7) jailed five activists who had publicly supported Hong Kong's pro-democracy Occupy Central movement and who had criticised 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.

Mr 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 Mr 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 criticising the ruling Communist Party and calling for an end to one-party rule.

Three other activists were sentenced to jail terms, ranging from 1.5 to four years, for inciting subversion in other ways, lawyers told AFP.

Liang Qinhui was jailed for 18 months, according to his lawyer Wu Kuiming. Another of his attorneys previously told Radio Free Asia that Liang had posted images and messages critical of the Chinese leadership and political system online, adding: "I don't think his actions amount to criminal behaviour".

Xu Zhiqiang, a Buddhist monk also known as Master Shengguan, who has frequently advocated for the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown and called on officials to disclose their assets, was separately given four years by a Wuhan court, lawyer Liu Hao told AFP.

Huang Jingyi was sentenced to two years by the same court, Mr Liu added.

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 2014, mass rallies brought parts of the semi-autonomous Chinese city of Hong Kong to a standstill for 79 days as residents called for fully free elections for future leaders, but failed to win any concessions from the Hong Kong or Chinese governments.

Under President Xi Jinping, China's ruling Communist Party has tightened controls over civil society, detaining or interrogating more than 200 human rights lawyers and activists in what analysts have called one of the biggest crackdowns on dissent in years.

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

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.