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BEIJING - A Chinese Buddhist dissident, outspoken on Tibet and other sensitive topics, was jailed yesterday for three-and-a-half years in a conviction that is likely to become a focus of human rights campaigns ahead of the Beijing Olympics.
Hu Jia, 34, was found guilty of "inciting subversion of state power" for criticising the ruling Communist Party.
"In this Olympic year, we urge China to seize the opportunity to put its best face forward and take steps to improve its record on human rights and religious freedom," the US Embassy said.
The official Xinhua news agency said Hu had made a "confession of crime and acceptance of punishment", leading the court to issue a relatively light sentence.
Hu's lawyers said he had acknowledged "excesses".
"In the end, I think that he came to accept that some of his statements were contrary to the law as it stands," defence lawyer Li Jinsong said.
Hu has 10 days to decide whether to appeal, but Li said he was unlikely to do so. The "inciting subversion" charge can attract a jail term of five years or longer, and before the hearing Hu's other lawyer, Li Fangping, said a long sentence was likely.
After the sentencing he denounced it as nonetheless unjust.
"It's the defence's position that citizens have the right to free speech," Li Fangping told journalists outside the court.
"The law on inciting subversion of state power doesn't have a clear boundary, but the constitution guarantees citizens freedom of speech."
China's foreign ministry defended the verdict and said critics were meddling in the country's internal affairs.
Another Chinese dissident, Yang Chunlin, who called for human rights to take precedence over the Olympic Games, was sentenced to five years in jail last month for the same crime.
The court heard that from August 2006 to October last year Hu published articles on overseas-run websites, made comments in interviews with foreign media and "repeatedly instigated other people to subvert the state's political power and socialist system", Xinhua said.
Dozens of well-wishers gathered outside the court to express support for Hu and rowdily air their own grievances.
"Hu Jia is a hero to us because he stood up to speak out, so we should also speak out," one of the supporters, Li Hai, said.
International human rights groups were also quick to denounce the jailing.
"This verdict is a slap in the face for Hu Jia and a warning to any other activists in China who dare to raise human rights concerns publicly," Mark Allison of Amnesty International said. - Reuters