Sunday, December 27, 2009

Liu Xiaobo sentenced amid protests

Liu Xiaobo, China's so-called leading dissident, was sentenced to 11 years in prison on Christmas day prompting widespread condemnation from the US, UN and EU as well as human rights groups. The UN human rights commissioner,  Navi Pillay, described the sentence as "extremely harsh". Speaking from Geneva, Navi Pillay said the case represented "a further severe restriction on the scope of freedom of expression in China". In Brussels, the EU presidency, currently held by Sweden, said it was "deeply concerned by the disproportionate sentence". There were also statements made outside the Number One Intermediate People's Court as Liu Xiaobo was sentenced. US embassy official Gregory May urged China to free Mr Liu immediately. "Persecution of individuals for the peaceful expression of political views is inconsistent with internationally recognised norms of human rights," Mr May said.

However the criticism has drawn strong comments from Chinese authorities. Beijing has accused Washington and the EU of meddling with the Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu telling reporters that statements from embassies calling for Mr Liu's release were "a gross interference of China's internal affairs".

Liu, now 53, helped draft Charter 08, a petition urging political change in China. He was arrest in late 2008 but was only brought to trial last week. His lawyer said he had pleaded not guilty to charges of "inciting subversion of state power". But was found guilty and handed an 11 year sentence though his wife said he would appeal. Liu "had the goal of subverting our country's people's democratic dictatorship and socialist system. The effects were malign and he is a major criminal," the court said. 

Both Liu's wife and his lawyer have had limited access to the dissident since his arrest. Liu Xia was allowed to see her husband for the first time since March at Friday's sentencing in the Chinese capital, Beijing. "We were able to meet for 10 minutes and we were all smiles when we spoke. I smiled so that he could be calm," she told the AFP news agency.

The former university professor is a veteran of the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy protests. His petition had called for greater human rights and reform of the law of "subversion" the very law he was charged with. His arrest and conviction has gelled support with more than 300 international writers, including Salman Rushdie, Umberto Eco and Margaret Atwood, calling for his release.

Human rights organisations joined the outcry from diplomats. Reporters Without Borders branded the sentence "a disgrace". US-based Human Rights Group and UK-based Amnesty International said the case was a warning to China's intellectuals and activists. In Hong Kong, a group of around 50 people protested against the sentence. Photos taken outside China's Liaison Office in Hong Kong showed three people being treated for injuries. A security guard, a protester and a police officer were hurt during the demonstration, the Associated Press news agency reported. 

There has also been online shows of solidarity for Liu Xiaobo. Thousands of Twitter users able to access the micro-blogging site have added a yellow ribbon to their avatar and the hash-tag #freeliuxiabo has become a top trending topic. Online and offline protests are being watched closely by authorities however. "Since the 1980s, Liu Xiaobo has stood for the public causes he believes in, so for us he's an important figure," said Teng Biao, a human rights activist, while being watched by police in Beijing. Police bundled some of the dozens of protesters into buses, but other activists were allowed to go freely. 

The charge of inciting subversion is a broad accusation that covers criticisms of the Communist Party and its policies. "This (trial) has been timed for the biggest holiday time in the West, when the media may not be paying so much attention," said Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, a New York-based group critical of Beijing. "This charge is clearly a politicized one, and it's been used against lawyers, writers and land activists."

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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