China jails rights activists 'over pro-democracy books'

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image captionProtesters in Hong Kong demanded the release of the three men, holding placards that read: "Defending human rights is not subversion"

China has jailed three pro-democracy activists for "inciting subversion", rights groups and relatives say.

Lawyer Tang Jingling, and activists Wang Qingying and Yuan Xinting were given jail terms of between two and five years by a Guangzhou court.

The main evidence used against the men was the fact that they had read and distributed books about democracy and activism, rights groups said.

It comes amid a widespread crackdown on human rights activists and lawyers.

The three men have been held in detention for more than 18 months.

They were accused of studying and distributing five books about non-violent activism, including From Dictatorship to Democracy by Gene Sharp, and Organizing: A guide for Grassroots Leaders by Si Kahn, rights groups said.

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image captionPolice outside the court stopped foreign diplomats from attending the trial

Tang's wife, Wang Yanfang, confirmed the sentences and told the BBC's Chinese Service it was a "ridiculous verdict".

The law was being used as a front for "political suppression", she said, and added her husband considered the court case "an illegal trial".

Police outside the court attempted the stop journalists from filming, and several supporters of the three men were taken away by officers, Reuters reported.

Patrick Poon, China researcher at Amnesty International, called the verdict against the three men "a gross injustice".

"Their peaceful and legitimate work never threatened state security, this is solely about the authorities arbitrarily silencing government critics," he said.

There was no immediate comment from the court.

China has previously responded to criticism of its human rights record by saying that each case is handled "in accordance with the law" and that "foreign governments should respect China's judicial sovereignty".

image copyrightAP
image captionActivists have called for the men to be freed
image copyrightAFP/Getty Images
image captionSwedish activist Peter Dahlin was detained on charges of damaging national security this month

China has cracked down on scores of lawyers and activists in recent years.

In July, the Chinese authorities launched what appeared to be an orchestrated campaign, when more than 280 human rights lawyers and activists - along with their associates - were summoned or detained or just disappeared.

Many of the lawyers were eventually released - but the arrests have been widely seen as the state's attempts to stifle dissent.

In December one of the country's most prominent rights lawyers, Pu Zhiqiang, received a suspended jail sentence after a brief trial for "inciting ethnic hatred" and "picking quarrels" in social media posts.

And earlier this month, Swedish activist Peter Dahlin was detained on charges of damaging national security, before being released and deported.

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