Hu Jia, one of China's most vocal dissidents, was sentenced to 3-1/2 years in jail Thursday on charges of "inciting subversion of state power," bolstering what international human rights groups say is a pattern of increased repression ahead the Olympic Games.
"It's another step … in a major crackdown against those involved in almost any kind of activity that falls outside the accepted parameters," says Curt Goering, deputy executive director of the United States branch of Amnesty International.
Mr. Hu, who endured more than 200 days of house arrest before his detention last December, was convicted on the strength of articles he published on his website; interviews he gave to foreign media; and testimony, via Web-cam, he gave to a European Parliament hearing last November on human rights in China.
The court found that he had spread "malicious rumors and committed libel," the official news agency Xinhua reported.
Hu was unlikely to appeal, according to his lawyers, who said he had acknowledged "excesses" in his criticism of the authorities. He appears to have crossed the line with an essay he co-wrote last September with another prominent human rights activist, lawyer Teng Biao, in which they argued that "if there is no human dignity or human rights, then there can be no real Olympics."
Mr. Teng was abducted last month for 48 hours by men who claimed to be policemen but showed no identification. He was released after an international outcry.
"Those who have linked China's human rights responsibilities to its hosting of the Olympics have been among the most harshly treated," Amnesty International charged in a report this week. "It is increasingly clear that much of the current wave of repression is occurring not in spite of the Olympics but because of the Olympics."
Chinese premier Wen Jiabao rejected such charges at a March press conference. "As for critics' views that China is trying to increase its efforts to arrest dissidents ahead of the Olympic Games, I think all these accusations are unfounded," he said.
Figures published by the office of the General Procurator, China's top law enforcement official, contradict the prime minister, however, according to John Kamm, a US lawyer who has analyzed the statistics.
Seven hundred and forty-two people were arrested last year on political charges in the realm of "endangering state security," the highest number since 1999 and double the 2005 figure, Mr. Kamm said. "The trend is very definitely up."
The sentence imposed on Hu, whose criticism of the Communist Party and human rights abuses in China have attracted global attention, was a particular slap in the face for US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who had personally appealed for the activist's release when she met Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in Beijing last February.
The US Embassy here, in an unusually swift and public reaction to a human rights case, said it was "dismayed" by the verdict and urged China "in this Olympic year … to seize the opportunity to put its best face forward and take steps to improve its record on human rights and religious freedom."
Kamm, whose US-based Dui Hua nonprofit organization has enjoyed considerable success on behalf of Chinese political prisoners over the past two decades by making discreet approaches to the authorities, said he had encountered an unusually harsh mood among senior officials he had met during his current visit.
Although they are aware that Beijing's image has suffered after Tibetan unrest and human rights groups' criticism, he said, he had found "no sign that the Chinese government is inclined to make concessions to international public opinion."
A senior Chinese diplomat told him that concessions such as a light sentence for Hu or other activists "would be viewed as a sign of weakness," Kamm said. "They are afraid of encouraging other protesters. They seem committed to a very tough line."