BEIJING - China sentenced a prominent human rights lawyer to a three-year suspended sentence on Friday following a secret trial, raising concerns the country is moving to further reduce transparency in high-profile, politically sensitive cases.
Beijing has come under increased fire from the international community as it tightens the screws on civil society in a crackdown that is said to have relied on torture and illegal detentions to punish critics of the government.
Li Heping, best known for defending blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng, was found guilty of "subverting state power", the Tianjin Second Intermediate Court said in a post on its verified microblog.
Li stood trial on Tuesday in the port city of Tianjin, close to the nation's capital, where he said he would "obey the judgement and not appeal", the statement said.
"Because the case involved state secrets, our court had a trial not open to the public ... the court fully protects the rights of litigation of Li Heping," it added.
The Beijing Global Law Firm partner was detained by police during the so-called "709 crackdown" in the summer of 2015 when authorities rounded up some 200 legal staff and activists.
A suspended sentence means Li will be released from detention but will continue to be closely monitored by police, probably at his home.
There was a "strong likelihood" that Li was tortured to force a confession, said Frances Eve, a researcher for the charity Chinese Human Rights Defenders.
Li has not had access to a lawyer of his own choosing since he was detained, according to his former attorneys.
Ma Lianshun, one of the lawyers, confirmed that he had not received any notice of the court proceedings.
"The secret trial is illegal because Li is not a government official. He got all his information from public channels, so he could not have had any state secrets," Ma told AFP.
Chen Guangcheng also condemned the proceedings, telling AFP: "I think the authorities know that Li has committed no crime, so in an open trial they wouldn't have been able to come up with good excuses for his treatment."
'Groundless and weak'
Last August, Chinese courts tried six members of the "709" group in quick succession, finding them guilty of serious crimes including "subverting state power" and "endangering national security".
The courts gave prior notice of the hearings -- even if just a few hours in some cases.
According to Chinese law, in most cases, a defendant's family members or lawyers must be informed at least three days before a trial.
But Li's wife Wang Qiaoling told AFP she had "received no notice of the trial, and in fact have not been able to speak with my husband since he was taken".
"I only read about his sentencing online. For the past month, there have been police posted outside my doors and I am afraid of going to Tianjin to try to see him," said Wang, who lives in Beijing.
"The secret trial shows that allegations against Li Heping are groundless and weak," Amnesty International's China researcher Patrick Poon told AFP.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has overseen a tightening of controls on civil society since assuming power in 2012, closing avenues for legal activism that had opened up in recent years.
While the government initially targeted political activists and human rights campaigners, it has increasingly turned its attention to the legal professionals who represent them.
During his career, Li also defended dissident writers and environmental activists, as well as members of the banned religious group Falun Gong.
Last week, a Chinese court indefinitely postponed the trial of Xie Yang, another prominent lawyer arrested during the 2015 crackdown, in a case that drew strong international criticism.
The status of a third human rights lawyer awaiting trial, Wang Quanzhang, is also unknown.
Amnesty's Poon said that Li's trial may bode ill for the other detained lawyers: "it could become a pattern where authorities are handling the cases in relation to the crackdown in a secretive manner."