HONG KONG - A court in Beijing on Thursday sentenced prominent civil rights lawyer Xia Lin to 12 years in prison on fraud charges, in what some human rights advocates called retaliation for his defense of high-profile clients such as dissident artist Ai Weiwei, who challenged the government.
From uniformed officers to plainclothes police, security outside the courthouse was heavy as friends, family and supporters gathered to await the verdict for Xia, who was detained by Beijing police in late 2014. International human rights observers from Germany, France, Denmark and Norway were kept in a secure area, separated from the public.
Xia was the latest of several rights activists, particularly defense attorneys, to be sentenced under the administration of President Xi Jinping, who has justified the crackdown on civil society as part of a broader campaign to boost security and stability.
Only Xia's brother and wife were allowed to attend the sentencing, which lasted less than 30 minutes. After the sentencing, the judge asked Xia whether he had heard it clearly, according to Xia's attorney, Ding Xikui. The attorney said police then forcibly removed his client from the courtroom before he could respond to the judge or say a single word to family members.
Ding told VOA's Mandarin service that Xia was heard shouting in the corridors as he was dragged out, "You won't let me speak. It's retaliation against me for representing the cases."
Fraud or loan dispute?
"It is regular procedure that the judge should ask him if he would plead guilty and accept the sentencing, but they canceled the procedure," the defense attorney said, explaining that Xia planned to appeal.
Prosecutors said Xia defrauded several people out of at least 10 million yuan ($1.5 million) to pay off gambling debts.
Ding, however, said there was not enough evidence to prove Xia guilty, and that the loans, which were being repaid, were private. Ding reiterated the position long held by Xia supporters that the government never provided any evidence of gambling debt, and that its claims regarding the amount of the purported debt were wildly inconsistent.
"During the court trials before the sentencing Thursday, the court accused Xia Lin of defrauding four people out of more than 10 million China yuan," Ding said, "but the verdict on Thursday listed only two people, and the amount of money was reduced to 5.9 million."
Under China's Criminal Law, fraud crimes involving "especially large" sums, such as those alleged in Xia's case, are punishable by 10 years to life in prison, though official guidelines recommend 10 to 12 years.
Scholars support Xia
Beyond prominent artist Ai Weiwei, the defendants Xia represented included one of China's best-known human rights attorneys, Pu Zhiqiang, who received a suspended three-year prison term last year, and Guo Yushan, who was arrested for supporting Hong Kong student protesters.
On June 23, several prominent Chinese legal scholars issued a legal opinion in support of Xia, stating that his case involved a loan dispute, not fraud, and that he was innocent.
One of the authors of the opinion, Peking University Law School professor Zhang Qian, said the fraud charge was "totally concocted."
"I think this is a miscarriage of justice, and we still insist he is innocent," he told VOA. "He is not guilty. However, the court has other purposes; they concocted such a crime to retaliate."
Zhang is a strong advocate of rule of law and constitutionalism. Although Chinese officials stress the need to establish the rule of law in the country, he said, even well-trained lawyers such as Xia can fall victim to officials who manipulate the legal system.
'Abuse of legal system'
"The rule of law can be used to curb official corruption. It can also be used to abuse and punish innocent people, even human rights lawyers who try to safeguard the interests of the people," he said. "Xia Lin has become a victim of such abuse of the legal system."
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang declined to discuss the case, saying it was a domestic matter and would be handled according to the law.
Reuters reported that telephone inquiries to the Beijing court were not answered. The court's website and official microblog did not mention the case Thursday.
This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Mandarin service. Some information was provided by Reuters.