China rights lawyer jailed for seven years, 'thanks Xi'

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Tianjin (China) (AFP) - A prominent Chinese human rights lawyer was convicted of subversion and sentenced to seven years in prison Thursday, the court said -- adding that he thanked President Xi Jinping for his leadership.

The proceedings against Zhou Shifeng, director of the now defunct Beijing Fengrui law firm, was the third such trial this week as Communist authorities crack down on dissent.

Fengrui defended victims of sexual abuse, members of banned religious groups and dissident scholars, among others.

It was at the centre of the "709 crackdown" -- named for its central date in July 2015 -- which saw more than 200 activists and lawyers detained for involvement in cases considered by the the ruling party.

Zhou was convicted of "subverting state power" and jailed for seven years, the Second Intermediate People's Court in the northern city of Tianjin said in a statement posted on its official social media account.

Since 2011, Zhou had "attacked the socialist system" online and verbally, and used Fengrui as a platform to challenge the government, endangering national security, the judge said.

Zhou pleaded guilty and said he would "never appeal", adding that the ruling would would "stand the test of history" for its fairness, footage of the trial from state broadcaster CCTV showed.

The court said he thanked late paramount Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping for reforms that made his "development" possible.

"The second person I would like to extend my gratitude to is Chairman Xi Jinping," it cited him as saying. "His national strategy to implement the rule of law has made China stronger."

The declarations attributed to him were in marked contrast to his previous career, which included numerous politically sensitive cases.

In 2008, he sued one of the country?s largest dairy producers on behalf of a victim of the notorious contaminated milk powder scandal, in which six children died and some 300,000 were sickened.

Under Zhou?s leadership, Fengrui defended artist Ai Weiwei, Uighur intellectual Ilham Tohti -- sentenced to life in prison for separatism -- and rights activist Cao Shunli.

Zhou was the third 709 detainee to be tried in Tianjin this week.

The spate of hearings was a "political charade" with no chance of fair trial, Roseann Rife of campaign group Amnesty International said in a statement, adding the defendants' "fates were sealed before they stepped into the courtroom".

- 'No benefit' -

Zhou's trial was held under air-tight security, with scores of police and plainclothes personnel -- identifiable by small gold star pins -- stationed for blocks around the court, clustered every few yards.

Traffic was cut off and journalists diverted from the site before being closely trailed -- even into toilets at a nearby shopping mall. Men and women in the street pretended to wait for buses or eat lunch, before filming outsiders on camcorders and phones.

Authorities insist the Tianjin trials are open, with the court saying that more than 40 people including politicians, legal scholars, and "civilian representatives from all walks of life", as well as mainland and overseas media outlets, were present at Zhou's proceedings.

But family members of those detained, particularly their wives, complain of being constantly watched and forcibly being kept away from the court or seeking further information.

In a video posted privately online, Wang Qiaoling, the wife of Li Heping, another detained 709 lawyer, said she and others had been confined to their homes.

In a social media post, the Tianjin court said Zhou had twice stated in writing that he did not want his relatives to attend his trial.

It included a photo of what it said was a letter he had handwritten, signed and fingerprinted, reading: "Given that my family members are all farmers who are not very well-educated, having them come to the court to attend my hearing would be of no benefit to either me or them."

AFP was not given access to the court Thursday, and only court-appointed defence lawyers were present.

Zhou's trial followed those of activists Zhai Yanmin and Hu Shigen, who were both found guilty of subverting state power by the same court.

Zhai was on Tuesday handed a three-year suspended sentence -- considered relatively lenient by the standards of Chinese dissident prosecutions -- for crimes that included waving banners and shouting slogans.

Hu, a prominent dissident and writer who previously spent 16 years in prison for trying to organise memorials for victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square killings, was on Wednesday given seven and a half years, with the court stating he had sought to foment "colour revolution".

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