A Beijing court sentenced a veteran Chinese journalist to seven years in prison Friday on charges of leaking a document detailing the Communist Party leadership's plans to aggressively target civil society and press freedom as a threat to its monopoly on power.
The sentence against Gao Yu, 71, comes amid a widening clampdown on free speech. The verdict appears to confirm the authenticity of the leaked document, deemed a state secret, which had been reported since June 2013 but never was discussed openly by the leadership.
Gao had denied the charges, which could have carried a life sentence. The United States called on China to release Gao at the United Nations Human Rights Council session in Geneva last month.
Rights activists have condemned Gao's detention and trial, saying it indicates a widening crackdown on dissent. Recently, the Chinese government detained five women's rights activists who planned to start a public awareness campaign about sexual harassment and later released them after widespread criticism.
Gao's lawyer Mo Shaoping said Gao was convicted of leaking state secrets by giving the strategy paper, known as Document No. 9, to an overseas media group. The document argued for aggressive curbs on the spread of Western democracy, universal values, civil society and press freedom, which the party considers a threat to its rule.
Another of Gao's lawyers, Shang Baojun, said Gao did not speak during the verdict and sentencing but told her brother, Gao Wei, that she could not accept the result. "We will definitely appeal," Shang said.
Speaking to The Associated Press, Gao Wei said his sister appeared thinner and more frail than before her detention a year ago.
The court seemed to disregard the defense and heard only the prosecution, Gao Wei said, a common complaint in such cases where the outcome is usually determined before the court meets.
"I'm very angry and concerned for my sister," he said.
Police patrolled the perimeter of Beijing's No. 3 Intermediate Court, where the verdict was delivered. Journalists and foreign diplomats gathered at the court but were denied entry to the hearing.
"We're obviously disappointed with the verdict," said U.S. Embassy First Secretary Dan Biers.
Gao, who wrote about politics, economics and social issues for media in Hong Kong and overseas, has already served time in prison on state secrets charges more than two decades ago.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei, when asked about the verdict at a briefing Friday, said that every citizen in China is "entitled to all kinds of basic rights and interests as stipulated by the constitution," and that Gao's case was handled according to law. "Other countries have no right to interfere with that," Hong said.
In a statement, Amnesty International said that Gao was the victim of a vaguely worded and arbitrary state secrets law that is often used against activists to stifle freedom of expression.
Gao is one of 44 journalists behind bars in China as of Dec. 1, 2014, making it the top jailer of journalists, said the Committee to Protect Journalists, a media advocacy group based in New York City.