BEIJING — One of China's most prominent human rights lawyers is set to be freed after a Beijing court on Tuesday gave him a suspended jail sentence in a case involving online comments critical of the ruling Communist Party.
The court convicted Pu Zhiqiang on charges of provoking troubles and inciting ethnic hatred, and sentenced him to three years in prison but said the sentence will be suspended for three years.
Still, the guilty verdict disqualifies Pu from practicing law, and he must comply with certain restrictions and not commit crimes during the three-year period or risk being jailed.
Human rights group Amnesty International welcomed the suspended sentence but condemned the guilty verdict.
"Clearly it is positive that Pu Zhiqiang is unlikely to spend another night in jail, yet that cannot hide the gross injustice against him," said William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International in a written statement. "He is no criminal and this guilty verdict effectively shackles one of China's bravest champions of human rights from practicing law."
The verdict also stirred mixed feelings from Pu's supporters, who were celebrating Pu's pending release but also argue it was an injustice to find him guilty.
"After all, an innocent man has been locked up for 19 months. Under the suspended sentence, he finally can get out," said supporter Ren Jianyu. "It's good news but with a feeling of helplessness."
Pu's supporters believe the case was politically driven to punish the outspoken lawyer who has become a leading figure among China's human rights lawyers.
Pu was active in defending free speech and represented artist Ai Weiwei in a tax evasion case that Ai's supporters said was politically motivated. He also was instrumental in pushing for the eventual abolishment of the labor camp system, which allowed police to lock up people for up to four years without a trial.
Since coming to power in 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping has spearheaded crackdowns on civil activists, rights lawyers and online freedom of expression, in moves aimed at snuffing out any potential threats to the Communist Party's grip on power.
Pu was detained shortly after attending a May 2014 meeting to discuss commemorating 25 years since the Tiananmen Square massacre, at a time when authorities were keeping a lid on any public commemorations of the event. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of protesters were killed in the crackdown, and the topic remains taboo in China.
After a prolonged investigation, Pu stood trial on Dec. 14 — after more than 19 months in detention — for several of his online comments that questioned Beijing's ethnic policies and poked fun at some political figures.
In one comment, Pu urged Beijing not to treat the ethnic region of Xinjiang as a colony and act as a conqueror and looter.
In another, Pu questioned why there were bloody incidents involving the Muslim minority of Uighurs when Beijing keeps touting how great its ethnic policies are.
He also derided a veteran delegate to the national congress known for her six decades of never casting a dissenting vote. Pu said she was either truly dumb or played dumb.
The official Xinhua News Agency said the posts involving ethnic issues, which collectively were reposted 2,500 times and received more than 1,300 comments, resulted in sharply antagonistic sentiments.
Xinhua said Pu's remarks about the national delegate and other public figures were insulting and triggered a huge wave of negative and abusive comments.
The court believed Pu's online speech on ethnic issues was provocative, effectively fanning ethnic hatred, and that his remarks on public figures were so vulgar and malicious they disturbed the public order, Xinhua said.
Xinhua said Pu admitted to the crimes and repented in court, but his lawyers said Pu only apologized for being impolite but insisted that he broke no law.
On Tuesday, hundreds of police barred foreign journalists from approaching the court. About a dozen diplomats who showed up in an attempt to watch the verdict being delivered said they were turned away on the grounds the courtroom was full.
At least one supporter who rallied outside the court was hauled away by police.