China has sentenced an outspoken dissident to three-and-a-half years in jail, on subversion charges.  Long time observers say his sentence came in record time.  VOA's Stephanie Ho reports from Beijing.

Hu Jia, 34,  has spoken out on a wide range of sensitive topics, including human rights, Tibet and AIDS.

He had been under house arrest for most of last year.  Chinese authorities formally detained him in December.

John Kamm is executive director of the U.S.-based Dui Hua Foundation, an advocacy group that has been looking into the cases of political prisoners in China for nearly two decades.

Kamm, who spoke to reporters in Beijing, said he is disappointed no outside observers, including journalists and diplomats, were allowed into the courtroom for Thursday's sentencing.

"It is my understanding no one got in," Kamm said.  "And that, I think, is really a shame.  It certainly gives the lie to the argument that things are becoming more transparent here."

At the same time, he says the trial was completed in record time, 98 days from detention to sentence, because Chinese authorities want to settle Hu Jia's case well before the Beijing Olympics, in August.

"I would say they wanted to get it over with quickly.  And they did not want this to be lingering as the Games approached," he said.

Speaking outside the courthouse Thursday, Hu Jia's lawyer Li Fangping said his client was convicted of charges of inciting subversion.  He said the court's evidence against Hu Jia included Internet articles he had written and interviews he gave to foreign media.

Li says Hu Jia pleaded not guilty, and is relieved the court at least did not charge him with a so-called "severe crime," which would have meant more than five years in jail.

Hu has 10 days to appeal his sentence.

China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu defended the verdict and said critics are using human rights as an excuse to interfere in China's internal affairs.

She told reporters China will not "stop implementing the rule of law ahead of the Olympics."

The U.S. embassy in Beijing issued a statement expressing Washington's dismay at the verdict.  The statement urged China to take the opportunity to put its best face forward and take steps to improve its records on human rights and religious freedom.