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Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo sentenced to 11 years on 'subversion' charges

By Steven Mufson
Friday, December 25, 2009; A10

BEIJING -- China's leading dissident, Liu Xiaobo, was sentenced to 11 years in prison on Friday after a court found the 53-year-old literary scholar guilty of "inciting subversion to state power" through his writings and role in Charter 08, a petition advocating human rights, free speech and an end to one-party rule.

The sentencing sent a signal that the Chinese Communist Party will continue to stifle domestic political critics, especially those who seek to organize their fellow Chinese. And it provided evidence that political modernization might not go hand in hand with China's economic modernization, contrary to past predictions by Chinese dissidents, U.S. business executives, political theorists and proselytizers of the Internet age.

According to the Dui Hua Foundation, a San Francisco-based human rights group, Liu's sentence was longer than any other sentence handed down for "inciting subversion" since the charge was established in the 1997 reform of the criminal law.

"You can think democracy, you can talk democracy, but you can't do democracy," said Li Fan, director of the World and China Institute in Beijing.

Rebecca MacKinnon, a fellow at the Open Society Institute and co-founder of GlobalVoicesOnline.org, said the case "certainly seems to reflect a high level of sensitivity and very low level of tolerance."

A decade ago, she said, "there was a great deal of optimism" about village elections, plans for separating party and state functions, and talk of other political reforms. Many analysts said a more open society would yield a more open political system.

But reform initiatives have stalled, and there was little evidence of openness in the handling of Liu's case this week.

His trial, which took place at the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People's Court, lasted less than three hours Wednesday. The judge rejected evidence the defense sought to introduce and limited the speaking time of Liu's attorneys to 14 minutes, according to one of Liu's brothers. He said that 18 mostly young people were allowed to listen to the proceedings but that Liu's wife, Liu Xia, could not. She did attend the Friday sentencing, marking only the third time she had seen her husband since he was detained more than a year ago.

The judge also barred journalists and foreign diplomats from attending. In contrast to the 1990s, when visits by leading international envoys often brought the release of dissidents, China has ignored calls by the Obama administration and other Western governments for Liu's release.

After the sentencing, which foreign diplomats were also barred from attending, Gregory May, first secretary with the U.S. Embassy, told reporters outside the courthouse that the United States was concerned about Liu's case and would continue to push for his release.

Chinese diplomats have rejected such calls as interference in China's affairs.

Mo Shaoping, a prominent human rights lawyer, said that the success of the 2008 Olympics, the economic crisis in the West and the 60th anniversary of the communist takeover had made the Chinese government "more and more arrogant" toward international critics.

Worse yet, Mo said, the judge had violated China's procedures.

"China has solved the past problem that there were no existing laws. Now we have more than 200 laws and over a thousand regulations. We have laws that cover every aspect of social affairs," said Mo, who could not represent Liu because he also had signed Charter 08. "But the government doesn't follow those laws, not even the laws they wrote themselves."

One of Liu's brothers, Liu Xiaoxuan, said the prosecutors focused on 350 words collected from half-dozen of the 490 articles Liu wrote over a five-year period. In those excerpts, Liu Xiaobo sharply criticized the Chinese government, calling it a dictatorship that sought to use patriotism to fool people into loving the government rather than the country, the brother said.

Liu Xiaoxuan, a professor of material engineering at Guangdong University of Technology, said his brother told the court that the country's "progress can't cover up the mistakes you've made and the flaws of your institutions."

Other signatories of Charter 08 also are facing government harassment. Zhang Zuhua, primary drafter of the manifesto, is under heavy police surveillance at his home. Others have lost prize research or teaching posts.

The Communist Party has always been wary of people seeking to organize outside of officially recognized groups, whether for political or other causes. Last week, security officials formally arrested Zhao Lianhai, who was already in detention for organizing families whose babies were affected by last year's tainted-milk scandal.

Many foreign diplomats see the Christmas Day sentencing of Liu Xiaobo as timed to minimize outside attention, with the world focused on celebrations. In 2006, the Chinese rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng was convicted of "subversion" three days before Christmas. In 2007, AIDS activist Hu Jia was arrested five days after Christmas.

The Charter 08 declaration was modeled on Czechoslovakia's Charter 77 drive, which eventually contributed to the end of communist rule there. Started with about 300 signatures, it has gathered thousands more online.

Among other things, Charter 08 says: "For China the path that leads out of our current predicament is to divest ourselves of the authoritarian notion of reliance on an 'enlightened overlord' or an 'honest official' and to turn instead toward a system of liberties, democracy and the rule of law."

On Friday, one of the signers of Charter 08 arrived outside the courthouse where Liu was sentenced to show support for Liu.

Yang Licai, 38, said he was disappointed by the sentence, and saw it as evidence that, despite the government's declarations of a "harmonious society," Chinese still lack basic freedoms. Surrounded by plainclothes police, Yang said he did not fear arrest for being outspoken.

"Right now I am not afraid," he said. "I am willing to shoulder my responsibility."

Researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.

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