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msnbc.com news services
updated 12/23/2011 2:15:07 AM ET 2011-12-23T07:15:07

A Chinese court sentenced a veteran democracy activist Friday to nine years' imprisonment for inciting subversion, after he wrote four essays arguing for democracy.

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The sentence given to Chen Wei is thought to be the most severe punishment handed down in a crackdown on dissent this year.

He was convicted of "inciting subversion of state power" over the essays, which he wrote and published online, said one of his lawyers.

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

Attorney Liang Xiaojun said the trial at a court in the city of Suining in southwestern China lasted about two and a half hours and that the sentence was handed down 30 minutes after the trial concluded.

"We pleaded not guilty. He only wrote a few essays. We presented a full defense of the case, but we were interrupted often, and none of what we said was accepted by the court," Liang said.

Liang said that after the sentence was handed down, Chen said: "I protest, I am innocent. The governance of democracy must win, autocracy must die."

'What's wrong' with free speech?
Chen's wife Wang Xiaoyan denounced the punishment.

"He is innocent and the punishment was too harsh. The court did not allow him to defend himself and he was completely deprived of his right to free speech," Wang said by phone from Suining. "What's wrong with a person freely expressing his ideas?"

Chen was among those who 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.

A contagion of conflict in China?

Chen, 42, previously served time for participating in the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing, where he was attending college.

In 1994, Chen was sentenced to five years' imprisonment for "counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement," according to the court indictment for his subversion charge.

Friday's sentence handed down to Chen appears to be the heaviest penalty meted out in relation to this year's crackdown, said Wang Songlian, a researcher with the Hong Kong-based advocacy group, Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

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"This severe punishment against an activist, caught up in the Jasmine crackdown, shows how the Chinese government's nerves are still jittery," Wang, the Hong Kong researcher, said.

"All its latest moves, its attempts to control its microblogs, its crackdown on activists, show it is increasing tightening on freedom of expression and other civil liberties," she said.

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Others rounded up in this year's crackdown who have been punished include Beijing activist Wang Lihong, who was sentenced to nine months in jail in September for staging a protest on behalf of other activists, and Yang Qiuyu, a Beijing activist who was sentenced to two years of re-education through labor.

Before the trial, his wife said Chen was being prosecuted for "nothing but his essays."

"I hope to see him in the courtroom," she added. "I haven't seen him since he was detained."

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

The Chinese government's hostility to political dissent is likely to grow next year as the Communist Party's prepares for a leadership handover.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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