By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 25, 2006; A09
BEIJING, Aug. 25-- A blind rural activist who attracted international attention for exposing forced abortions and sterilizations in eastern China was sentenced to four years and three months in prison on charges that he damaged property and disrupted traffic, state media reported Thursday evening.
Supporters of the activist, Chen Guangcheng, immediately denounced the verdict, which came less than a week after a closed-door trial at which he had been deprived of his defense team.
Chen, 34, originally faced five years in prison on the charges, which stem from an incident in his village in February. He received a far more severe sentence than others charged in connection with the case, his wife and lawyers said.
"I didn't expect they would punish him this severely," said Chen's wife, Yuan Weijing, who, like Chen's lawyers, learned of the verdict through news media. "The whole operation stinks and is illegal and under the table."
"I don't know what to do now," she said, her voice cracking. "I want to visit him, but I don't think they will allow me."
One of Chen's top defense attorneys, Xu Zhiyong, vowed to appeal. He and Chen's other attorneys were accused of theft and detained by police the night before the trial; Xu was released an hour after it concluded. Chen was represented, over his objections, by court-appointed lawyers whom he had never met.
His supporters say the charges were trumped up to retaliate against him for preparing a class action lawsuit that embarrassed local family planning officials last year. He took testimony from thousands of residents who said officials had raided the homes of families with two children and demanded that at least one parent be sterilized. They also said authorities had forced women pregnant with a third child to have abortions.
Chen has been under house arrest or in jail for a year. His trial has brought international condemnation of China's legal system and galvanized human rights lawyers, who say they are feeling a sharp upturn in official pressure.
"Authorities always control us human rights lawyers, but it has been tighter in the last two months," said Teng Biao, a Chen supporter and a lecturer at the China University of Political Science and Law.
Luo Gan, the Politburo member responsible for internal security in China, warned this summer against the destabilizing influence of rights lawyers and activists.
In an issue of a Communist Party journal, Luo called for the adoption of "vigorous measures to effectively prevent hostile forces and people with ulterior motives from exploiting conflicts." He said some Chinese had engaged in "sabotage under the disguise of 'rights protection.' "
Last week, Gao Zhisheng, a well-known human rights lawyer who has lobbied for Chen's release, was abruptly taken from his sister's home by a group of men with no identification, no warrants and no legal documents. Gao, 42, is being detained for unspecified "criminal activities," the official New China News Agency later reported.
Hu Jia, an activist and a friend of Gao's who is also under house arrest, said he had learned details of the incident from Gao's sister.
"More than 10 people rushed into Gao's sister's house and put a black hood over Gao's head. So many men surrounded him that she told me, 'I could only see his slippers,' " Hu said.
"The men pushed me onto the sofa and covered my mouth with their hands. They took away my cellphone and my brother's car key. Everything happened in a few minutes. They didn't say a word," Gao's sister said, according to Hu. "The next day police came to my house, returned my mobile and told me two things. One, that the group of people who came over yesterday were from Beijing and, two, not to tell anybody what happened, to pretend I didn't see anything."
Hu said a "psychological war" has been initiated by the party to terrify lawyers and advocates into "behaving."
On Thursday, international rights lawyers condemned the verdict in the Chen case.
"The Communist Party has decided to thumb its nose at the world by allowing this flagrantly unjust conclusion, and Chen will become the poster boy for advertising this," said Jerome Cohen, a professor of Chinese law retained by the New York Times to help defend Zhao Yan, a Beijing-based researcher for the paper who has been charged with leaking state secrets. Zhao was sentenced Friday to three years, including the two years he has already served in a detention house, so he will be released a year from now. The court threw out a charge of leaking state secrets to the foreign media, but found Zhao guilty of fraud in connection with taking $2,500 from a man in Jilin province, in northeast China. Lawyers for Zhao, however, plan to appeal, saying he is innocent of all charges.
"This is a turning point in the harsh crackdown against lawyers and other rights defenders," said Sharon Hom, executive director of New York-based Human Rights in China. "It moves rights defenders into the 'enemy camp,' of Falun Gong activists, Tibetan activists and democracy activists."
Researchers Jin Ling and Jiang Fei contributed to this report.