Thirty-four-year-old Hu Jia has long been active in a series of human rights causes. Starting with advocacy for rural AIDS sufferers, Hu also campaigned for democratic rights, religious freedom, and self-determination for Tibet.
The sentencing, coming only weeks after the Chinese crackdown on demonstrations in Tibet, indicates that Beijing is sticking to a hard line despite its promise to improve its human rights record when it won the right to stage the 2008 Olympic Games.
Hu's lawyer Li Fangping points out that the case against him relates to comments made seven years ago -- material which presumably has been available to the authorities for years, but only acted upon now.
"What he is being charged with today are his speeches made between May 2006 and October 2007, with his views expressed in five articles and two interviews," Li says. "Our defense is that the speeches were made in 2001, with its formal legal proceedings starting on August 2006. Besides that, those speeches were not publicly distributed [at the time].”
Case Tied To Olympics?
Nicholas Bequelin, of the U.S.-based rights group Human Rights Watch, told the French AFP news agency that “without the Olympics, [Hu] would not be in jail.” His sentencing is meant to discourage others from speaking out.
Well-wishers, foreign diplomats, and reporters gathered outside the courtroom today to hear the result of the verdict.
China has denied any crackdown related to the Olympics. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said on April 3 that Hu's case had been dealt with in accordance with the law, and that the rule of law could not be changed because of the games.
"We don't accept the criticism at all," Jiang said. "China is a country ruled by law. Everyone is equal in the eyes of the law. We can't abandon the rule of law because of the Olympics. The case you mentioned is dealt with according to Chinese laws and procedures. We hope the relevant organizations will respect China's law system and not interfere in China's internal affairs with excuses of human rights."
Hu's sentencing follows the jailing last month on similar charges of another dissident, Yang Chunlin, who called for human rights to take precedence over the Olympic Games.
'Conspiracy Of Silence'
Human rights groups point to China's pledge in 2001 to improve its rights performance when it was granted the right to host the 2008 Games by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The IOC has been placed in an uncomfortable position as calls have grown for it to take some kind of action to make China live up to its pledges. The committtee has maintained that sport and politics are separate issues.
Amnesty International's Mark Allison says that a failure of Olympic officials and world leaders to speak up now would amount to a “conspiracy of silence.”
Regardless of what the IOC does or does not do, it appears that rights activists around the world may take matters into their own hands. The Olympic torch has started its journey around the world, and protests are expected to be staged at many points along its route. There are also growing calls for a boycott of at least the opening ceremony of the Games, and some athletes reportedly agree with that.
compiled from agency reports