BEIJING, JAN. 26 -- Wang Dan, the most prominent student leader of the 1989 democracy movement, was sentenced to four years in prison today for his role in the protests, while one of China's veteran dissidents, Ren Wanding, received a seven-year term because he "showed no repentance," the official New China News Agency reported.
The two were among 26 activists whose cases were settled today in the second major round of proceedings against students and intellectuals accused of playing key roles in the demonstrations, which were crushed by the army on June 4, 1989.
Five activists received prison terms, three were convicted but exempted from criminal punishment, and 18 were released without trial, including one student leader who was on the government's 21-most-wanted list.
The sentences handed down today by the Beijing Municipal Intermediate People's Court are considered fairly lenient by Chinese government standards. By international human rights standards, however, most of the activists, who were exercising basic rights of free speech and assembly, deserved no criminal punishment.
Wang, a Beijing University history student, headed the government's most-wanted list of student leaders. He went on trial Wednesday on charges of counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement, and the proceedings lasted three hours, Chinese sources said. His parents were not notified until the morning of the trial.
Today's official news agency account said Wang "committed serious crimes but has shown such repentance as confessing his own crimes and exposing others." The government's claim may have been an attempt to discredit Wang with the country's pro-democracy forces and eliminate his effectiveness as a leader in future movements.
Longtime human rights campaigner Ren received the most severe sentence today. Ren, who began his trial Jan. 8 on the same charges as Wang, "was found guilty of grave crimes and showed no repentance," the news agency reported. An accountant in his mid-forties, Ren was a major figure in the democracy movement of 1978-79, but played only a relatively minor role in the seven weeks of mass protests that began in the spring of 1989.
Under the Chinese judicial system, which is controlled by the Communist Party, defendants are under enormous pressure to confess, for which they may receive leniency, while those who resist are dealt with severely. Furthermore, according to Chinese sources, many of the defendants were forced to use government-appointed lawyers, who were barred from pleading not guilty.
In the 19 months since the army killed hundreds of people to crush the protests, the authorities have concentrated on trying and sentencing workers or unemployed people involved in the movement.
This second wave of prosecutions, begun three months ago, is considered politically more sensitive because it is directed at students and intellectuals whom the government has identified as top leaders of the democracy movement.
These trials represent "the government's symbolic decapitation of the 1989 pro-democracy movement," according to a report by Asia Watch, a New York-based human rights organization.
The Chinese government, which came under international sanctions for the army attack on protesters, is apparently pressing the trials now to take advantage of the world's preoccupation with the Persian Gulf War.
The authorities also have been concerned about domestic political currents, and the timing of the trials indicates that they believe the situation inside the country has stabilized, analysts said.
Even though the government today announced the release of many of the accused and exempted some from "criminal punishment," most of the individuals have been incarcerated for more than 18 months without formal charges. All of the sentences handed down today included time already served.
Others who received sentences today include Bao Zunxin, a philosopher in his fifties who argued against martial law, and Guo Haifeng, a Beijing University student who knelt on the steps of the Great Hall of the People to submit a petition to the government. Bao, who also was reported to have "repented" by the news agency, was sentenced to five years. Guo was convicted of counterrevolutionary sabotage for attempting to set fire to an armored vehicle, and was sentenced to four years in prison.
Of the three who were convicted but exempted from punishment, the most prominent is university lecturer and literary critic Liu Xiaobo. He returned to China in April 1989 from the United States, where he had been a visiting scholar at Columbia University. Liu's trial on charges of counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement began last week. The news agency said he "committed serious crimes but has acknowledged them, showed repentance and performed some major meritorious services."
The agency did not elaborate, but Liu's "meritorious services" probably refers to the night of the Chinese army attack, when Liu helped persuade student protesters to peacefully leave Tiananmen Square and negotiated with the army to allow them to retreat.
The 18 who were released without trial include three university lecturers, Lu Jiamin, Liu Suli and Chen Po, and two student leaders, Xiong Yan and Zhou Yongjun.
Several prominent intellectuals who the government claims were the movement's hard-core organizers are awaiting trial and are likely to receive harsh sentences.
The official news agency's account said the hearings were public, attended by more than 300 local residents, with lawyers defending the accused. But admission to the trials was closely controlled by authorities, and closed to foreign reporters and diplomats.