Chinese court jails rights lawyer for two years for inciting subversion

By Philip Wen
FILE PHOTO: Pro-democracy demonstrators hold up portraits of Chinese disbarred lawyer Jiang Tianyong, demanding his release, during a demonstration outside the Chinese liaison office in Hong Kong, China December 23, 2016. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

By Philip Wen

BEIJING (Reuters) - A Chinese court on Tuesday jailed a prominent rights lawyer for two years, saying he incited subversion of state power, the most recent such verdict in a sweeping crackdown on activism.

Jiang Tianyong, 46, developed notions of overthrowing China's political system after being influenced by training workshops held by "anti-China foreign forces" overseas, the court in the central city of Changsha said.

He used social media to "attack or defame" government departments and incited others to gather and demonstrate in public, the Changsha Intermediate People's Court said on its Twitter-like Weibo microblog.

However, Jiang's wife, Jin Bianling, called the verdict "unacceptable", adding that she believed he was being made an example of, in order to deter or repress other rights lawyers.

"I do not acknowledge or accept this verdict," she told Reuters in a telephone interview from the United States, where she lives. "Jiang Tianyong is innocent."

Jiang's family was unable to appoint their own lawyers, Jin said, and she had been unable to contact him in detention.

In Geneva, the U.N. human rights office, which has denounced China's crackdown on defense lawyers since 2015, called for his release. "We urge the Chinese authorities to release Jiang Tianyong as well as lawyer Wang Quanzhang and other lawyers and activists who have remained in detention since August 2015," U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville told Reuters.

The verdict came exactly a year after Jiang disappeared last November while visiting the family of another detained rights lawyer. He was held incommunicado for six months before being formally charged.

There were "serious concerns regarding the lawfulness of the legal proceedings", said Germany's ambassador to China, Michael Clauss, including the denial of access to lawyers of Jiang's choice.

"The circumstances and the lack of regard for the rights of the defendant certainly call into question the fairness of the verdict," Clauss said in a statement.

Jiang, who was disbarred in 2009 after taking on sensitive cases such as defending practitioners of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, had been an outspoken critic of the government crackdown on dissent.

Since mid-2015, hundreds of rights lawyers and activists have been sentenced or detained, drawing condemnation from foreign governments and international rights groups.

Tuesday's ruling broadly followed the facts in Jiang's confession at his trial in August, when the court released video images of him reading parts of a written statement.

China has videostreamed or liveblogged increasing numbers of court hearings in recent years, in a push for judicial transparency.

But in sensitive cases, say rights activists, only selected portions are made available, when the defendant has agreed to go along with a pre-prepared outcome.

Rights group Amnesty International called Jiang's conviction "baseless" and his trial a "total sham".

"His so-called confession and apology, most likely extracted under duress, were nothing more than an act of political theater directed by the authorities," said William Nee, a China researcher at Amnesty.

(Reporting by Philip Wen; additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Richard Balmforth)