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Famed human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang sentenced in China

Chinese human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, pictured in 2010.

Chinese human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, pictured in 2010.

(Ng Han Guan / Associated Press)
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Chinese authorities on Tuesday handed famed human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang a suspended three-year jail sentence for “picking quarrels” and “inciting ethnic hatred,” sparking outrage among human rights groups.

According to Chinese law, the sentence dictates that authorities will monitor 50-year-old Pu for three years, and send him to jail for another three if he violates the terms of his probation. His legal credentials will be revoked.

“As his lawyers, we still firmly believe he’s not guilty,” Shang Baojun, one of Pu’s attorneys, said in a telephone interview after the announcement. “But as Mr. Pu himself indicates, this result is acceptable.”

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Shang said that he saw Pu on Tuesday morning and that “he looks good.”

“He told us he wants to express gratitude to all of his supporters,” Shang said. “He will tell them face to face when time is right.”

He said that Pu still has 10 days to decide whether to appeal the judgment. “Either way, we would support him,” he said.

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Pu was detained in May 2014 after he participated in a private commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and formally arrested that June. During his time behind bars, authorities whittled down the charges against him until he stood accused of sending seven critical tweets between 2011 and 2014.

Authorities tried him Dec. 14 beneath hazy skies at the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court, as plainclothes police shoved and harassed journalists, diplomats and supporters outside.

“The good side of this is that he should be able to go home tonight after spending 18 months in detention,” said Joshua Rosenzweig, a Hong Kong-based independent researcher focused on human rights and criminal justice issues in China. “But he’s got a sword hanging over his head for the next three years, and he’s very much at the mercy of the authorities. He doesn’t want to give them any excuses to revoke that provocation.”

“I’d say that there are signs of this verdict being a kind of compromise,” he said. “Certainly he could have been sentenced to prison time — and possibly significant prison time.”

“The authorities seem to have had a fairly weak case that was made weaker and weaker as they dropped pieces of evidence,” he continued. “It goes without saying that this conviction is farcical to begin with. So what we’re talking about are the technicalities of this point, of what this means. I wouldn’t try to paint any larger picture of this being a watershed, or this being any sort of turning point in the repression of dissidents.”

Pu, known as China’s “Giant Lawyer” for his commanding height and baritone voice, has gained a massive following online as an acerbic critic of government policy. He has represented a diverse array of clients, including dissident artist Ai Weiwei and victims of a draconian (and now abolished) “re-education through labor” system.

The sentence will take effect after Pu’s appeal period has ended, rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan said in a telephone interview. Liu added that if Pu does return to jail, the time he has already served will be deducted from his final sentence.

“He has already paid a huge price in this case,” Liu said.

On Tuesday, Police detained 12 of Pu’s supporters outside the Beijing courthouse as authorities announced the verdict, Amnesty International said in a statement.

“Clearly it is positive that Pu Zhiqiang is unlikely to spend another night in jail, yet that cannot hide the gross injustice against him,” William Nee, China Researcher at Amnesty International, said in the statement. “He is no criminal and this guilty verdict effectively shackles one of China’s bravest champions of human rights from practicing law.”

Alexandra Li and Tommy Yang in The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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