BEIJING, JAN. 5 -- Authorities today sentenced seven activists, including four student leaders on the government's "most wanted" list, to prison terms ranging from two to four years for involvement in the 1989 democracy movement.

The sentences are considered relatively lenient by Chinese standards. In addition, several intellectuals and some students have been released from custody in recent days in what some Chinese sources said was another indication of leniency by the Communist government.

But those intellectuals whom authorities have accused of playing key roles in the demonstrations are expected to be punished much more severely to give legitimacy to the government's claim that the 1989 protests were a "counter-revolution," according to Chinese and Western sources.

Several of those intellectuals, apprehended after the Chinese army crushed the demonstrations in June 1989, have been formally charged in recent weeks and are awaiting trial. Chief among them are scholars Wang Juntao and Chen Ziming, who have been charged with sedition, a crime punishable by death.

The four students sentenced today by the Beijing Municipal Intermediate People's Court are the first on the list of 21 most wanted student leaders to be tried. Wang Dan, No. 1 on the list, is still awaiting trial, and at least four others among the most wanted are also in jail. Several of those named on the list escaped to the West.

"I think it's pretty obvious that they tried to go easy on the students because there's a lot of public attention focused on this around the world," said Robin Munro, a China specialist with Asia Watch, a New York-based human rights organization.

Just last month, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Schifter, Washington's top official for human rights, held talks here with officials and asked for the release of 150 Chinese political prisoners.

Today's sentences included deprivation of political rights for some of the defendants, according to the official New China News Agency. It said the defendants were tried separately, made confessions and were represented by lawyers or relatives who argued on their behalf.

Despite repeated requests, court authorities refused to allow foreign journalists to attend any part of the proceedings, some of which began in November. However, the news agency said more than 60 Beijing residents were present when the sentences were announced.

The court said the defendants were guilty of inciting subversion against the government, organizing attacks against martial law forces, or gathering crowds to disrupt public order. The news agency did not specify the crimes with which each individual was charged.

Many of the " activities for which the defendants were jailed, such as making public speeches or joining in peaceful protest marches, would be protected in the United States under constitutional guarantees of free speech and assembly.

Among the student leaders, the stiffest sentence -- four years -- was given to Wang Youcai, No. 15 on the most wanted list.

Wang, 25, a Beijing University physics student, was a member of the Beijing Autonomous Students Federation, the group that organized and coordinated most of the student protests. He was accused of attempting to organize continued student resistance in Shanghai after the army crushed the protests on June 4, 1989, leaving hundreds of people dead.

Two other student leaders also active in the students federation, Zhang Ming, from Qinghua University, No. 19 on the most wanted list, and Ma Shaofang, a Beijing Film Academy student, No. 10 on the list, were each sentenced to three years in jail. Student leader Zheng Xuguang, a Beijing Aerospace University student, No. 9 on the list, was sentenced to two years.

Three activists whose backgrounds were not known were also sentenced to prison terms. They were Zhang Qianjin and Xue Jianan, sentenced to two years, and Kong Xianfeng, who was sentenced to three years.

In addition to the seven who were sentenced to jail time, two others, Li Yuqi, a Qinghua University student, and Pang Zhihong, whose background was not known, were "exempted from criminal punishment" because they "committed minor crimes and showed willingness of repentance," the news agency said.