BEIJING (AP) — A Chinese court sentenced the nephew of legal activist Chen Guangcheng to more than three years in jail for assault in a hurried, suddenly announced trial Friday that his parents were barred from attending.
The punishment against Chen Kegui is seen as retaliation by local officials angered by Chen Guangcheng's daring escape from house arrest in April. Chen, who is blind, fled to the U.S. Embassy and set off a diplomatic tussle between Beijing and Washington that embarrassed the central government.
Friday's surprise trial and sentencing were the final steps in the seven-monthlong, secretive prosecution of Chen Kegui since he clashed with officials who barged into his house looking for his uncle.
At every step of the legal process, his supporters say, Chinese authorities have showed their willingness to run roughshod over justice in order to achieve their political aims. They blocked his wife and parents from seeing him and prevented them from hiring lawyers for him. His father found out about the trial only hours before it took place.
Chen Guangcheng said he was infuriated by the punishment of his nephew, who he says acted in self-defense as would anyone whose house had been raided by armed men in the middle of the night.
"This is a case that tramples on the rule of law. It is a declaration of war against fairness and justice in the world. I absolutely cannot accept this and am very, very angry," said Chen Guangcheng in an interview from his home in New York where he has been studying English and law. "There is no doubt that this is a kind of retaliation against me."
The United States said it was deeply disturbed by Chen Kegui's sentencing after what it described as a summary trial and "deeply flawed" legal process.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called on China to review the case. She said its handling was contrary to Beijing's assurances to Washington that Chen's relatives would be treated in accordance with Chinese law.
The Yinan County People's Court convicted Chen Kegui, 32, of attacking officials who stormed into his house looking for the activist, and sentenced him to three years and three months' imprisonment, said his father, Chen Guangfu.
The charge of "intentional injury" centers on allegations that Chen Kegui hacked at the officials with knives after he and his parents had been beaten.
The court prevented his parents from attending the trial, Chen Guangfu said, and dozens of police officers guarded the couple as they waited outside the courthouse.
But that was only the latest irregularity in the authorities' handling of the case.
Since Chen Kegui disappeared into police custody in May, Yinan authorities have not officially notified his family about the prosecution nor have they let family members see him or hire their own lawyers to defend him. Lawyers were instead appointed to him, and one of them told his father Chen Guangfu about the trial only on Friday morning.
Chen Guangfu said he was saddened by the verdict, coming just two weeks after a pivotal Communist Party meeting in Beijing in which a new group of leaders was unveiled.
"I feel very disappointed," the father said. "I had believed that once the new generation of leaders came to power there would be improvements in the rule of law, but now it looks like the situation is still the same."
A Human Rights Watch researcher said the conviction was a letdown for those who hoped China's new leaders would abide by the legal system they claim treats everyone fairly.
"If this is a test case for the new leadership's commitment to the rule of law, then the results are clear. The rule of law lost," said Maya Wang in Hong Kong.
Chen Guangcheng is a self-taught legal activist who gained recognition for crusading for the disabled and fighting against forced abortions in his rural community. But he angered local officials and served four years in prison only to be released into an abusive and illegal house arrest.
Chen made a daring escape from his village in April and wound up in the protection of U.S. diplomats, triggering a diplomatic standoff over his fate. An agreement was made to send him to the U.S. to study law at New York University.
Nuland said that at the time, the U.S. had urged China not to exact further retribution against Chen's family members, and Beijing had said it would abide by Chinese law.
"Our concern is that this case did not meet that standard, nor did it meet the standard of international law," Nuland told a news briefing in Washington.
Beijing activist and Chen's friend Hu Jia said he believed the authorities sought to pressure Chen Guangcheng into silence while overseas by putting his nephew in jail.
"We can see that Chen Kegui himself is a hostage who is being used to contain and also to punish Chen Guangcheng," Hu said. "If the Chinese government feels pressure from Chen Guangcheng's advocacy overseas, what can they use to punish and to limit him? That is Chen Kegui, who will now be in jail."
Associated Press reporter Isolda Morillo in Beijing and writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.