Human rights advocate Chen Wei was sentenced to nine years in jail by a court in southwest China after a brief hearing on Friday in which he pleaded not guilty to subverting state power, the stiffest punishment in a crackdown on dissent this year.

Chen's lawyer, Zheng Jianwei, said the court in Suining, a city in Sichuan province, found Chen guilty of the charge of inciting subversion of state power by writing essays critical of the government.

Chen said in court, 'I'm not guilty', Zheng said in a telephone interview. Chen declared after the verdict was announced, Dictatorship will fail, constitutional democracy will prevail, said Zheng.

Liang Xiaojun, the second lawyer who represented Chen at the trial, said the hearing lasted two and a half hours.

Chen's wife, Wang Xiaoyan, confirmed that Chen was jailed for nine years as punishment for nine essays that he had published on overseas Chinese websites.

They downloaded all his essays from overseas, and you can't read any of them on websites inside China, Wang said in a telephone interview.

But they still said that the essays had an extremely malign impact inside China, even though most people in China can't read them.

China uses a firewall of Internet filters and blocks to prevent citizens from reading websites abroad that are deemed to be politically unacceptable or socially unsound.

The sentence is the third-longest term ever handed down for inciting subversion after Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, who has been serving an 11-year sentence since 2009, and Liu Xianbin, who was jailed for 10 years in March this year.

A DETERRENT TO OTHERS

Chen, 42, was one of hundreds of dissidents, rights activists and protest organisers swept up in a crackdown on dissent this year, when the ruling Communist Party sought to prevent potential protests inspired by anti-authoritarian uprisings across the Arab world.

Many of those detained have been released but remain under police watch. But officials appeared determined to make an example of Chen, said Huang Qi, a human rights advocate in Chen's home Sichuan province and a long-time friend of his.

First, because he was convicted before, the court would certainly give a heavier sentence, said Huang, who added that Chen had been active in many campaigns that infuriated officials, including helping parents of children killed in schools that collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

Other people have been released, but the Communist Party authorities always have one soft hand and one hard fist, said Huang. The authorities will certainly mete out some heavy sentences to serve as a deterrent to others.

In September, Beijing-based activist Wang Lihong was jailed for nine months for stirring up trouble, because she demonstrated outside a court to support three people on trial for maligning an official. She was later released.

China's party-run courts rarely find in favour of defendants in trials for political charges.

I was mentally prepared for the verdict, said Chen's wife, Wang. But it's too dark, not allowing people to speak out.

Chen, who was detained February, signed the Charter 08 manifesto for democratic reform that was co-written by Liu Xiaobo, the jailed dissident who won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.

Two other dissidents from Sichuan detained at about the same as Chen -- Ran Yunfei and Ding Mao -- have been released.

Chen was jailed for taking part in the pro-democracy protests centred on Tiananmen Square in Beijing that ended in the armed crackdown of June 4, 1989. He was released in late 1990.

Chen's wife said she did not know if he would appeal, but said he had told his lawyers before the trial that he would not. She said his jail time would be counted as starting in February.

Catherine Baber, Amnesty International's deputy director for the Asia-Pacific, said in a telephone interview he's a prisoner of conscience and should be released immediately.

(Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee and Chris Buckley Editing by Ron Popeski and Ed Lane)