Two labor activists who led some of China's biggest protests in 50 years were sentenced to prison yesterday on subversion charges, a defense lawyer said.
Yao Fuxin was sentenced to seven years by a court in the northeastern industrial city of Liaoyang, while Xiao Yunliang was given four years, said Yao's attorney, Mo Shaoping.
Calls to the Liaoyang prosecutor's office rang unanswered.
The men were arrested last year after protests by tens of thousands of laid-off workers who demanded better benefits from bankrupt state-owned factories. They were among the largest reported since China's 1949 communist revolution.
Labor discontent is strong across China's northeast, a center for state-owned heavy industry that has cut millions of jobs amid economic reforms. Liaoyang is about 600km northeast of Beijing in Liaoning province.
Yao and Xiao have been kept in the court's detention center since their one-day trial in January, said Mo, who was in Beijing. He and Xiao's lawyer did not attend the sentencing because of restrictions imposed to curb the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome.
Hundreds of riot police sealed off the area around the court house, said Xiao's daughter, Xiao Yu, who attended the sentencing with Yao's daughter and two labor representatives. Other family members were kept outside, she said.
"It's too terrible," Xiao Yu said. "We really don't know where else we can go to get a fair answer."
Mo said Yao will appeal his sentence.
The subversion charges could have carried the death penalty, though given China's concern about its international image, such a severe punishment was unlikely.
The New York-based China Labor Watch said that even the sentences handed down were too harsh.
"It is not acceptable," Li Qiang, the group's executive director, said in a statement. "This shows that the Chinese government is suppressing Chinese workers' peaceful struggle."
The court said their subversive activities also included having contact with "hostile elements and foreign media," China Labor Watch said.