March 31, 2017 / 7:48 AM / 5 months ago

Two Chinese activists who backed HK democracy protests jailed

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Two Chinese activists who supported pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong were jailed by a court in southern China on Friday for subverting state power, but their lawyer said their heavy sentences were part of an ongoing crackdown on civil society.

Su Changlan and Chen Qitang, who both faced "incitement to subvert state power" charges, were jailed for three and four-and-a-half years respectively by a court in Foshan close to Guangzhou, according to their lawyer, Liu Xiaoyuan.

The verdict made no mention of Hong Kong.

At least four other Chinese activists who have been put behind bars for supporting Hong Kong's large pro-democracy, "umbrella movement" protests in 2014. At least 100 people in China had been detained for voicing support for the demonstrations, according to Amnesty International.

Liu said he was very angry and disappointed at both the heavy sentence and what he called the court's disrespect of the law.

"They have alternative opinions and views, and sometimes they can be very critical of the government, but this does not mean they are subverting state power," Liu said.

"Now they've been sentenced heavily ... our freedom of speech will only be further restricted."

Liu said the case had dragged on for an unreasonable amount of time, and the pair planned to appeal.

Security was tight around the courthouse, with scores of police blocking the area, according to footage carried by Hong Kong's Cable TV.

Su, a prominent women's rights advocate in Southern China, had been taken into police custody by Guangzhou police in late 2014 for expressing support on social media for the Hong Kong protests. Su suffered from a thyroid ailment and had been denied multiple requests for bail on medical grounds.

Chen, meanwhile, had posted articles in support of human rights and Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement, according to Amnesty International.

Both had pleaded not guilty. Calls to the Foshan people's court went unanswered.

"The Chinese authorities are very scared that universal values would affect the (Chinese) public ... This is how Hong Kong is dangerous in the Chinese authorities' eyes," said Chow Hang-tung, a barrister and vice chairwoman of the Hong Kong Alliance that champions democratic causes.

"Hong Kong is all about the rule of law and democracy."

China's leadership has overseen a sweeping crackdown on activists since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012, including detaining or imprisoning dozens of rights lawyers in what the government says is the targeting of criminal acts.

The once relatively vibrant civil society in southern Guangdong province has been smothered by authorities in recent years, with scores of detentions and convictions of human rights lawyers and activists in various areas including labour.

Last weekend, a Chinese Australia-based academic, Feng Chongyi, was blocked from boarding a flight home from Guangzhou, and remains in a hotel in the city. Feng had been meeting with fellow academics and intellectuals while in China, as well as human rights lawyers as part of his research.

China also confirmed on Wednesday it had detained a Taiwan human rights activist, Lee Ming-che, and was investigating him on suspicion of harming national security.

Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Michael Perry

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