Officials in China have handed down a 10-year jail sentence to Chen Xi, the second dissident in three days to be convicted of inciting subversion through articles he posted online, says Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Another democracy campaigner, Chen Wei, was sentenced to nine years on similar charges, report RSF as well as the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the International Press Institute (IPI) and the Writers in Prison Committee of PEN International. They are some of the heaviest sentences for inciting subversion since the Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo was jailed for 11 years on Christmas Day 2009, say the groups.
In Guiyang, the capital of the southwestern province of Guizhou, Chen Xi was convicted of inciting subversion in 36 political essays he posted on various websites, and was also sentenced to three years without civil rights after his release, reports RSF.
According to news reports, he was detained on 29 November after campaigning for independent candidates to win seats in upcoming elections to the local People's Congress.
"The judge said this was a major crime that had a malign impact," his wife, Zhang Qunxuan, told Reuters after the trial. The judge said Chen was a repeat offender who deserved a long sentence, she added.
Chen, who has insisted he is innocent, will not appeal because it seemed "pointless," RSF reports.
According to the "Guardian", Chen is a leading member of the Guizhou Human Rights Forum, which has allegedly been declared an illegal organisation. The "Guardian" says the former factory worker was first jailed in 1989 for supporting student protests in Tiananmen Square, and has served a total of 13 years in jail already for his activism.
"The Chinese authorities have again used the holiday period to impose a series of particularly severe sentences on pro-democracy activists," RSF said. "The 'subversion' charge is just a pretext for silencing dissidents such as Chen Xi and Chen Wei and encouraging self-censorship."
Both Chen Xi and Chen Wei signed Charter 08, which calls for political reforms, and supported the 1989 student movement, says the "Guardian". Chen Wei was sentenced in Suining, Sichuan province on 23 December, for incitement to subversion relating to four essays online.
Chen Wei went missing after responding to an invitation to "have tea" with the local police on 20 February, during a crackdown on dissidents prompted by online calls for a "Jasmine Revolution" in China, reports RSF. Scores of people have been arrested and detained in the past year. Unlike popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, however, the calls have drawn little response and no large-scale protests have taken place in China.
Two other Sichuan-based writers, Ran Yunfei and Ding Mao, were arrested at around the same time as Chen Wei on the same charge, says RSF, but have been released and placed under residential surveillance for six months, says RSF. According to RSF, with 27 people in jail as of 1 December, China ranks third-worst in the world in terms of the number of journalists jailed.
"While the attention of the world is fixed upon the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, the Chinese government may believe it has been presented a golden opportunity to strike hard at Chinese pro-democracy and human rights activists. The international community should not let this go on," said Hong-Kong based group China Human Rights Defenders at the time of the first arrests.
China's nervousness about criticism has recently led to tighter online controls, say news reports. On 1 January, Shanghai became the latest large city to order Chinese tweeters to register their real names when opening accounts, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported. Twitter is banned in China, but there are home-grown, Twitter-like services, such as Weibo and Sina Corp. The new registration rules were first applied in Beijing on 16 December.