Chinese rights activist Wang Lihong was sentenced to nine months in jail on Friday in a case that has drawn condemnation from critics who see her as a victim of the Communist Party's crackdown on Internet-spread dissent.
Wang was found guilty of stirring up trouble based on a protest in 2010, when she demonstrated outside a court in eastern China's Fujian province where three people stood trial for maligning an official.
That initial hearing drew protesters who said Wang was a victim of injustice by officials seeking to stifle dissent, but heavy security outside the verdict hearing at a local court in northwest Beijing on Friday kept the number of supporters down.
Wang was detained March this year, when the Chinese government was pursuing a drive to detain and silence dissidents, persistent protesters and human rights lawyers who wary security officials feared could fan the kind of popular challenge to party rule that toppled governments across the Arab world.
Wang's lawyer, Liu Xiaoyuan, said the sentence was relatively light compared the maximum of five years' jail that the court could have meted out. Liu said that if Wang loses her appeal, she is due to be released in December, taking into account her time already spent in detention.
I think this is a heavy sentence, Wang's son, Qi Jianxiang, told reporters. She should never have been sentenced at all.
Wang, 55, a retired businesswoman and city government worker, told the judges they should know she is innocent, said Qi.
My mother wasn't campaigning for rights for her own interest but for the sake of others, and now she's been sentenced for it, he said.
Supporters of Wang outside the court denounced the sentence, a couple of them weeping. European diplomats said they were not allowed in and one EU attache said they were disappointed. But the diplomats did not directly comment on the verdict.
'UNWILLING TO COMPROMISE'
Wang's supporters have included the prominent Chinese activist-artist, Ai Weiwei, whose own 81-day secretive detention prompted an international outcry. Last month, Ai used his Twitter account to urge people to pay attention to her case.
Though China's crackdown on dissidents has eased since March, and many detainees have been allowed to return home, Beijing is likely to stay wary of any signs of unrest before a change in the Communist Party leadership late next year.
I think her case shows the straits that China's human rights cause faces, said Ai Xiaoming, a documentary maker and teacher from south China who came to Beijing to show support for Wang. She is not a relative of Ai Weiwei, the artist.
Wang also illustrates the variety of people drawn into China's small but hardy circle of rights campaigners.
She's very free-spirited and unwilling to compromise on her values, said her son, Qi. She's always been like that. She's never been someone to hide her opinions.
After retiring in 2008, Wang put her idealism and humanism into practice through various online activities, according to a website set up to campaign for her release (http:/freewanglihong.blogspot.com) That advocacy also brought the charges that landed Wang in jail.
In 2010, she took up the cause of a petitioner, Lin Xiuying, who believed that her daughter had been killed after being raped at a brothel that she said ran under police protection.
Lin and two supporters who helped publicise her accusations on the Internet were jailed for libel.
When the three were tried last year, Wang was among the demonstrators who gathered outside a court in Fujian province to demand their release.
She took particular concern for the rights of women, said Ai the documentary maker. But she's also really a product of the Internet age, when it's become possible to find out about issues and speak out about them online.
(Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie)