Guangzhou human rights lawyer Tang Jingling has been sentenced to five years in jail for inciting subversion of state power, while activists Yuan Xinting and Wang Qingying will be facing three-and-a-half and two-and-a-half in prison respectively on the same charges.

The verdict was handed down on Friday morning at the Guangzhou Intermediate People’s Court. A large number of police officers were stationed outside the court, barricades were erected and the public were not allowed near the premises, RTHK reported.

Tang, Yuan and Wang.

Known as the “three gentlemen of Guangzhou”, the three defendants have been active in grassroots human rights activism. including initiating the “non-cooperation movement” and commemoration events of the Tiananmen Massacre. They were also among the first to sign the Charter 08, a human rights manifesto co-authored by Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo and endorsed by more than 350 activists and intellectuals in 2008. They were arrested on May 16, 2014 by Guangzhou authorities for “picking quarrels”, Ming Pao reported.

Tang Jingling has been involved in various human rights court cases, including assisting the family of deceased Hunan activist Li Wangyang. He also submitted a letter last June to the Chief Executive of Hong Kong and lawmakers, saying that genuine universal suffrage was the only way out for Hong Kong.

‘A gross injustice’

The ruling has been condemned by groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. “Today’s verdict against the three activists is a gross injustice. Their peaceful and legitimate work never threatened state security, this is solely about the authorities arbitrarily silencing government critics,” said Patrick Poon, China researcher at Amnesty International.

“The authorities appear to be stepping up the use of spurious ‘national security’ charges as they escalate their attack against human rights activists and peaceful critics of the government’s abuse of power,” Poon said.

“The Chinese government needs to stop equating peaceful criticism with subversion if it is to make any progress towards respecting rights,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “The prosecution of three rights activists on such dubious charges shows how far Beijing needs to go.”

See More: Human rights lawyers targeted in ‘unprecedented’ crackdown.

Karen is a journalist and writer covering politics and legal affairs in Hong Kong for HKFP. She has also written features on human rights, public space, regional legal developments, social and grassroots activism, and arts & culture. She is a BA and LLB graduate from the University of Hong Kong.