BEIJING (Reuters) - Three Chinese activists who campaigned for government officials to disclose their wealth were jailed on Thursday in the culmination of a high-profile trial that underscores Beijing's resolve to clamp down on dissent.
The activists were among more than a dozen detained in recent months for their anti-corruption activism. Rights groups say the crackdown on the group throws into sharp relief the limits of President Xi Jinping's campaign against graft.
Despite a few pilot schemes for low level officials to disclose their assets, any public discussion of the wealth of senior leaders remains strictly off limits.
Graft oils the wheels of China's government and probes into Party elites have revealed billions of dollars in undisclosed assets, often held by trusted friends or family members.
Two of the activists, Liu Ping and Wei Zhongping, were sentenced to 6-1/2 years in prison for using a cult to damage law enforcement, gathering a mob to disturb order in public places, and picking quarrels and provoking disputes.
"It isn't fair, it isn't just," said Si Weijiang, Liu's lawyer, reached by phone. "The laws can just be bent however (the government) wants in politicised cases."
Another activist, Li Sihua, was sentenced to three years in prison, also for picking quarrels and provoking disputes.
The sentences were handed down on Thursday by a court in the poor central province of Jiangxi. Court officials could not be reached for comment.
Human rights groups condemned the judgment. In a statement, Amnesty International called the charges "preposterous".
"Having a small private gathering and holding a banner in a lobby entrance demanding financial transparency from officials should not in any way constitute 'picking quarrels' and 'illegal assembly'," said William Nee, a China researcher for Amnesty, according to the statement.
Si said it was up to the activists to decide whether they would appeal, but added he didn't believe an appeal would be successful or have any meaning.
The activists, encouraged by Xi's anti-corruption campaign, took photographs of themselves holding banners and placards that read "Strongly urge officials to disclose their assets" and "Xi Jinping, immediately end dictatorship".
The photos were widely circulated online.
"What was written on the signs is simply a suggestion to the country's new leaders. It's completely within the scope of freedom of expression that's within our country's constitution," Si said.
The activists were part of a group called the New Citizens Movement, which advocates for officials to disclose their wealth and favours working within the system to create change. Its well-known founder, Xu Zhiyong, was sentenced in January to four years in prison, sparking criticism from the United States, European Union and rights groups.
"This is a crazy retaliation, a shameless retaliation, which has no connection with the law, the legal system or rule of law," the New Citizens Movement said in a statement on its website. "This is not just a retaliation against Liu Ping, Wei Zhongping and Li Sihua but retaliates against and dishonours the rights of citizens."
Prominent human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who had represented members of the New Citizens Movement, was detained last month after he attended a meeting in a private home to commemorate the anniversary of the bloody suppression of pro-democracy protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Pu's case is ongoing.
(Additional reporting by Joseph Campbell; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)