China Jails Human Rights Activist

BEIJING -- A Buddhist Chinese dissident outspoken on Tibet and other sensitive topics was jailed for 3 1/2 years on Thursday, a conviction likely to become a focus of 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, a verdict that drew quick condemnation from the United States.

"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 U.S. Embassy said in a statement.

The 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," said defense lawyer Li Jinsong. Hu has 10 days starting Friday 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.

"It's the defense position that citizens have the right to free speech," Li Fangping told reporters 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 in late March for the same crime.