A Chinese court issued a suspended three-year prison sentence to a human rights activist charged with subversion of state power after a brief trial Tuesday, the first publicly acknowledged hearing in a yearlong case shrouded in secrecy and involving hundreds of Chinese human rights activists.
The official Xinhua News Agency said a court in the northern city of Tianjin had passed the sentence on Zhai Yanmin, who was arrested in July last year as part of a countrywide government campaign that paralyzed China's activist legal circles. Roughly 300 lawyers and activists were initially seized and questioned before most were released.
Zhai's is the first of four cases expected to be heard this week after prosecutors announced in July they would try a lawyer, Zhou Shifeng of the Beijing law firm Fengrui — which worked extensively on human rights cases — and three activists who worked with the firm, including Zhai. More than a dozen others remain jailed, their legal status uncertain.
According to Xinhua, Zhai, 55, said in a court confession that the group of lawyers, citizens and petitioners who believed in "pushing the wall" — a Chinese expression for overthrowing the government — methodically hyped politically sensitive cases. They organized popular rallies during controversial human rights cases to draw international attention and undermine the Chinese state, Xinhua quoted him as saying in remarks that echoed previous government accusations toward the group.
Xinhua said the court was told that Zhai, 55, and the three others had "conspired and plotted to subvert state power," and had "established a systematic ideology, method and steps to achieve it."
It said Zhai pleaded guilty and would not appeal his sentence.
Zhai's three-year sentence was suspended for four years, meaning that although he won't go to prison, he will have to live under considerable restrictions and supervision. He also lost all political rights for the same period, making him ineligible to run for local councils or other offices. He can be sent to prison to serve his sentence for disobeying the rules set for his release during the four-year period.
A three-year sentence is the minimum allowed for those convicted of subversion, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.
"It is an unprecedentedly light sentence ... almost a symbolic punishment," said Beijing political commentator Zhang Lifan.
That may be a deliberate move by the ruling Communist Party, which permits no political opposition, to demonstrate that those who cooperate can be treated leniently, while harsh penalties await those who refuse, Zhang said.
"The point is not that whether you committed any crime, but whether you obeyed or not," Zhang said.
The trial also fits a pattern established under the administration of President Xi Jinping to use more sophisticated legal means to attack perceived opponents as it maintains pressure on activists and non-governmental organizations.
Police cordoned off the Tianjin No. 2 Intermediate People's Court on Tuesday, one day after protesters flanked by foreign diplomats demanded more information about the cases.
The trial was attended by five foreign media outlets invited by the court and other observers, according to Xinhua, in an apparent attempt to address vocal criticism from the activists' supporters about a near-total lack of transparency surrounding the cases.
Many wives have said they and their retained lawyers have been denied access to the jailed activists for more than a year, receiving only occasional updates by word of mouth, while some family members seeking information have been briefly detained themselves.
Zhai's wife, Liu Ermin, was taken into custody on Sunday night and returned late Monday to her Beijing home, where she said she is kept effectively under house arrest by security agents outside her door.
"It's unfair, it's too unfair," she said in a text message upon learning of Zhai's verdict.
She added that she intended to appeal Zhai's verdict but did not know how to reach his government-appointed lawyer, whose identity has not been disclosed to relatives or in state media reports.
It isn't clear whether Zhai would immediately be allowed to return home. A lawyer and legal assistant recently released have been filmed apparently recanting their actions, but their whereabouts remain unknown.