BEIJING (AP) — China sentenced the co-author of a daring call for reform to an unprecedented 11 years in prison Friday in what rights groups called a direct slap at international pressure — and a warning that the treatment for dissidents will be increasingly harsh.
Diplomats from more than a dozen countries were shut out of Liu Xiaobo’s trial on subversion charges, and the United States called for his immediate release.
Liu, a 53-year-old literary critic, co-wrote an unusually direct appeal called Charter 08, asking for increased freedoms in China and the end to the Communist Party’s dominance. More than 300 people, including some of the country’s top intellectuals, signed it before it was made public.
Liu was detained a year ago, a day before Charter 08 was released. His verdict came after a two-hour, closed-door trial Wednesday in which prosecutors accused him of “serious” crimes. China calls the case an internal affair.
Liu plans to appeal, his wife, Liu Xia, told The Associated Press.
“When he decides to do something, he doesn’t regret it,” she said in the courtyard of a Beijing law firm shortly after the verdict. She spoke with her husband for 10 minutes after he learned his fate — their third meeting since he was detained.
“He said he hopes to be the last person punished for practicing freedom of expression,” Liu Xia said. “He thinks the government is aware that this is illegal and wrong.”
The vaguely worded charge of inciting to subvert state power is routinely used to jail dissidents in China. Liu could have been sentenced for up to 15 years, but rights groups said even the 11-year sentence was a shock.
Liu’s lawyer, Shang Baojun, who was hassled by plainclothes policemen on his way into court, was careful not to express his own opinion of the case.
Rights groups were blistering in their response to the verdict, handed down on Christmas Day.
“This is a gutting of any pretext of any freedom of expression in China,” said Sharon Hom, executive director of the New York-based Human Rights in China.
In Hong Kong, dozens of activists from various rights groups protested Liu’s treatment outside the Chinese government’s liaison office Friday morning, with about 10 storming into the compound and scuffling with guards before leaving voluntarily.
In a brief statement Friday, the court said it strictly followed procedures in Liu’s case and fully protected his legal rights, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported.
Xinhua’s report was in English only — another sign that the government does not want its people to know about Liu’s case. Instead, the top Xinhua headline in Chinese declared 2009 a year of “citizens’ rights.”
Rights groups warned that Liu’s sentence signaled China has no intention of loosening the restrictions on freedom of speech that have been steadily tightening since the end of last year’s Summer Olympics in Beijing.
Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter have been blocked, and other signers of Charter 08 have reported being harassed or even fired. Several said they were warned not to attend Liu’s trial or write about it online. Some came anyway and were detained.
“This verdict is also an explicit warning from the government to China’s intellectuals, civil society activists and human rights defenders that the state will severely punish those who the government perceives as a threat to its monopoly on power,” said Phelim Kine, Asia researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
He called it a statement of defiance to the international community as well.
“We are deeply concerned by the sentence of 11 years in prison announced today,” Gregory May, first secretary with the U.S. Embassy, told reporters outside the courthouse. He was one of more than a dozen diplomats stopped by authorities from attending the trial and sentencing.
The German government said Chancellor Angela Merkel was “dismayed” by Liu’s sentence.
“I regret it that the Chinese government, despite great progress in other areas, still massively restricts freedom of opinion and of the press,” Merkel said in a brief statement released by her office.
A San Francisco-based human rights group, the Dui Hua Foundation, said Liu’s was the longest sentence it knew of since the crime of inciting subversion was established in 1997.
Abolishing that law is among the reforms advocated in Charter 08, along with a new constitution guaranteeing human rights, open elections and freedom of religion and expression.
“We should end the practice of viewing words as crimes,” the petition says.
Some 10,000 people have signed Charter 08 in the past year, though a news blackout and Internet censorship have left most Chinese unaware that it exists.
Liu, a former university professor, previously spent 20 months in jail for joining the 1989 student-led protests in Tiananmen Square, which ended when the government called in the military — killing hundreds, perhaps thousands.
His wife said Liu will be 65 years old once this new prison term is complete. When they met briefly Friday, they didn’t talk about the verdict, she said.
They smiled at each other, and Liu wished his wife a happy life outside.
“I think that if he can make it through, then I can make it through too,” she said.