China has sentenced disabled human rights lawyer Ni Yulan to two years and eight months in prison on charges of causing a disturbance and committing fraud, prompting complaints by rights activists.
A Beijing court sentenced the 51-year-old lawyer on Tuesday. Her husband, Dong Jiqin, was also jailed for two years on similar charges.
Both deny the charges, and their supporters say the charges were intended to silence their criticism of the government. The two were arrested a year ago as part of a wider crackdown on political dissent following anonymous online calls for protests in China after a series of uprisings in Arab countries.
Sarah Schafer, a Hong Kong-based China researcher with Amnesty International, told VOA the sentence is "absolutely unfair." She charged that Ni Yulan was targeted because she and her husband have been outspoken advocates for victims of land rights violations.
"Ni Yulan has suffered countless abuses at the hands of authorities, trying to defend people from forced evictions," she said. "In fact, she herself is a victim of a violent forced eviction, and she began giving aid to other victims to other victims of these types of evictions in 2001."
Outside the heavily guarded courtroom in suburban Beijing, European Union official Raphael Droszewski read a statement expressing "deep concern" about the sentences and calling for Ni's immediate release.
"The delegation of the European Union in China is deeply concerned by news of the sentence handed down to human rights defenders Ni Yulan and Dong Jiqin," said Droszewski The EU firmly upholds the rights of a person to address any human rights on behalf of individuals or groups, as enshrined in the United Nations declaration on human rights defenders."
He also said the EU is "preoccupied with the deterioration of the situation for human rights defenders in China," and will continue to closely monitor such cases.
Ni was jailed in 2002 and 2008 for "obstructing official business" and "harming public property" after fighting against the government acquisition of her home in Beijing. She says she was tortured while in prison and is now wheelchair-bound.
During her four-hour court hearing in December, Ni was forced to use an oxygen tank and recline on a bed because of poor health. Activists, including Schafer, say the hearing did not meet international standards for a fair trial.
Her case is the latest in a series of lengthy prison terms given to Chinese human rights activists and other dissidents. Schafer says she expects the crackdown to widen as China's Communist Party nears the date of a sensitive leadership transition later this year.
"As the leadership transition approaches, I think we'll see more arrests, more detentions, more harassment of activists and dissidents," Schafer said.
She says Ni's lawyer plans to appeal the verdict, although he has not been allowed to meet with either Ni Yulan or her husband.