Pu Zhiqiang: China rights lawyer gets suspended jail sentence

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Media caption,

As Stephen Evans reports, there was a heavy police presence for Pu Zhiqiang's sentencing

Prominent Chinese human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang has been released from detention after receiving a suspended jail sentence.

Mr Pu was found guilty by a Beijing court earlier on Tuesday for "inciting ethnic hatred" and "picking quarrels" in social media posts.

The court sentenced him to three years in prison but also said the sentence would be suspended.

He is the latest to be tried in a crackdown on dissidents in China.

Mr Pu was released from Beijing's Number One Detention Centre on Tuesday afternoon, where he had been held for 19 months.

He is now under "residential surveillance", and has 10 days to decide whether to appeal against his conviction and sentence, his lawyer says.

Experts say the suspended sentence means Mr Pu can avoid serving time in jail - but could be monitored during the suspension period. The guilty verdict means he can no longer practise law.

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Chinese web-users are using a South Korean film as a euphemism to talk about Pu Zhiqiang's trial

Image source, Twitter
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A female activist was dragged away by plainclothes police

Mr Pu could have faced a maximum sentence of eight years in prison.

State news agency Xinhua said that during his sentencing Mr Pu had "acknowledged the reality of his crimes", apologised, and accepted his sentence. However, his lawyers said he had not pleaded guilty.

Rights group Amnesty International said that the sentence was "a deliberate attempt by the Chinese authorities to shackle a champion of freedom of expression".

However, foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Mr Pu's case had been handled "in accordance with the law" and that "foreign governments should respect China's judicial sovereignty".

Image source, Photo provided to BBC
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Mr Pu was swiftly driven away from the detention centre on Tuesday afternoon

Mr Pu has been in detention since May 2014, after he posted several messages on microblogging platform Weibo that were critical of the government.

He had questioned the "excessively violent" crackdown on Uighurs in the restive Xinjiang region, alleged the Chinese Communist Party was an untruthful party, and mocked government rhetoric over disputed islands in the East China Sea.

Supporters say his arrest was politically motivated, as he is known for representing dissidents in sensitive human rights cases.

Pu Zhiqiang represented artist Ai Weiwei in a tax evasion case that critics complained was politically motivated. He also campaigned for the eventual abolition of the labour camp system, under which suspects could be detained for years without trial.

Image source, AFP
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Ai Weiwei (left) has condemned the sentence


Prior to the sentencing, a small group of activists and foreign journalists gathered in front of the court. There were brief scuffles with the police, in a repeat of scenes seen last week during Mr Pu's one-day trial.

A BBC team witnessed supporters and journalists being dragged away by dozens of plainclothes policemen. The BBC team was later asked to leave.

Amnesty said at least 12 activists were detained on Tuesday.

Human rights activist Hu Jia told the BBC that China's authorities had "attacked a leading human rights lawyer... as a warning to other rights lawyers [in China]."

International interest in his case could have contributed to his jail sentence being suspended, Mr Hu said, but added that Mr Pu was still at risk of being persecuted by the authorities.

At the scene: Stephen Evans, BBC News, Beijing

Pu Zhiqiang is something of a celebrity as a lawyer. He's a big, bear-like man with a baritone voice who has defended a range of causes, especially those involving freedom of speech and detention in labour camps.

He mixes popular street speech with allusions to classical literature in a powerful rhetorical fashion. "Feisty" is an adjective often used to describe him.

He has also been a thorn in the side of the authorities since his imprisonment in 1989 as a student pro-democracy protester.

His defenders say his current treatment is not because of the content of the seven posts on social media cited by the authorities. Rather, they say, it is to send a warning to dissidents - and the lawyers of dissidents.