The Wuhan Intermediate People’s Court ordered Li Tie, 52, a writer and human rights campaigner, to 10 years in prison for subversion of state power, a more serious charge than the original accusation of inciting to subvert. Wuhan is the capital of Hubei Province in central China.
The sentence, handed down on Wednesday but made public on Thursday, came more than 16 months after Li was detained in September 2010, and 9 months after his trial in April.
The evidence included membership in an alternative political group, the China Social Democracy Party, and a succession of essays that took issue with the government, led by an online criticism titled “Human Beings’ Heaven Is Human Dignity.”
It is unclear, as are many human rights cases in China, why Li was singled out for punishment - but it is possible that his writings and memorials angered local officials, said the research coordinator for Chinese Human Rights Defenders, Wang Songlian.
“This environment encourages local party officials to hand out very harsh sentences because they can get away with it,” Wang said. “The national green light has been given to the local authorities for the repression of freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and to met out severe sentences for activities related to political and religious expression.
The sentencing followed hearings in late December in which a Sichuan Province democracy activist, Chen Wei, was sentenced to nine years in jail for inciting subversion, and a Guizhou Province dissident, Chen Xi, received a 10-year term on the same charge.
This week, prosecutors in Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang Province, charged a fourth activist, Zhu Yufu, with subversion for writing a poem that urged Chinese citizens to gather together to call for freedom.
Those cases, with similar convictions and sentences meted out to other dissidents, reflect a steady trend of restrictions and harsher punishments for government critics since late 2008, some experts say.
U.S. Ambassador to Beijing Gary Locke said Monday that China's human-rights record is deteriorating in the face of pro-democracy protests in the Middle East. He said China's human-rights climate is “in a down period and it is getting worse.”
But China's foreign ministry rejected the claim. It said that Beijing respects human rights and is only arresting those in violation of Chinese law.