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China Sentences 2 Veteran Democracy Activists to Jail

China has sentenced two long-time democracy activists to jail after holding them for more than a year. The move appears to be part of a crackdown on dissent ahead of the Communist Party congress later this year.

A human rights group says veteran Chinese activists Mu Chuanheng and Yan Peng were rushed to trial in the eastern city of Qingdao, and convicted of insulting China's leaders and trying to overthrow the government.

Nicolas Becquelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher for the group Human Rights in China, said the Qingdao court sentenced Mr. Mu to three years in prison, and Mr. Yan to one and a half years. Mr. Becquelin said the move appears to be part of a broad campaign to silence critics. "I think that these very stiff penalties reflect the general climate at the present time before the 16th conference of the National People's Congress and the Party Congress," he said.

At the upcoming congress, senior Chinese leaders, including President Jiang Zemin and Prime Minister Zhu Rongji, are expected to retire from their Communist Party posts and hand power to a younger generation. The congress takes place in November and will be the first in five years.

Mr. Becquelin said China has taken many measures to tighten security ahead of the congress, from increasing convictions of dissidents to rounding up migrants in cities and stepping up censorship of the media. "This one is important because we have a leadership transition and China, being a one-party system, has a very difficult time having transition, because there is no institutionalized mechanism for that," he said. "So basically, those kinds of events bring the country to a halt."

Mr. Becquelin said the two activists, Mr. Mu and Mr. Yan, have been in detention for more than a year on charges unrelated to this week's conviction. He said Mr. Mu has been a critic of the government since taking part in the 1979 pro-democracy movement, and Mr. Yan has funded pro-democracy activities with profits from his restaurant.