BEIJING • A court yesterday convicted one of China's most prominent rights lawyers of "inciting ethnic hatred" and trouble-making with posts criticising the government, handing down a suspended sentence that means he avoids jail but cannot 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 tight clampdown on dissent, would brook no challenge to its rule.
The Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People's Court said Pu was being punished on charges of inciting ethnic hatred and "picking quarrels and provoking trouble", state television CCTV said on its microblog.
Pu, 50, was sentenced to three years in prison, but given a three-year reprieve, said his 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 Mr Mo Shaoping, a second lawyer for Pu.
Mr 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 crackdown on dissent in two decades in China.
"Pu isn't guilty," Ai told media 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.
Mr Shang said Pu was relieved and would not appeal against the court ruling.
"He said he thanks everyone and he wants to rest," Mr Shang said.
"He also said if there's an opportunity, history will deliver a true judgment."
The charges against Pu were based on seven microblog posts that he had published online, criticising China's ethnic policy in the troubled western region of Xinjiang and several officials, according to his lawyers.
State news agency Xinhua said the court decided "to impose a lenient punishment" because "Pu Zhiqiang truthfully confessed to the facts of the crime and positively pleaded guilty".
However, Mr Shang said Pu did not plead guilty. Lawyer Liang Xiaojun said: "Having a criminal conviction means he can definitely never practise law again."