China has sentenced four activists to jail for up to three-and-a-half years for urging officials to reveal their assets, a lawyer has said, the latest convictions in a crackdown on dissent that has drawn international criticism.
The sentences were handed down on Friday despite the West's condemnation of what it calls the suppression of free expression in China that some rights groups say is the worst in recent years.
Ding Jiaxi was sentenced to three-and-a-half years, Zhao Changqing received a two-and-a-half year sentence and Li Wei and Zhang Baocheng were given two-year terms, the Haidian court in Beijing said on its microblog, according to the Reuters news agency.
They were charged with "gathering a crowd to disturb public order", which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
Zhang Keke, a lawyer representing Ding, said his client was innocent and would appeal.
"I think it's comparatively harsh because he originally was innocent, so a verdict like this for him is quite harsh," said Zhang.
"They didn't commit any harm to society, they didn't cause any obstruction to traffic, and in the square where they were at, they didn't cause any harm to public interest, they didn't cause harm to any other people, nor did they denounce anyone."
'Street political activities'
Police accused the four activists of organising and carrying out "street political activities", from displaying banners to making speeches urging declaration of assets, according to a copy of Li's arrest notice.
Ding, a lawyer based in Beijing, was in charge of "overall coordination" while Li, who is unemployed, was responsible for collecting information and organising activists, the notice said.
Zhao, who has been jailed three times for pro-democracy activities, was said to have organised dinner gatherings where citizens discussed the disclosure campaign.
The convictions came a week after a court upheld a four-year jail sentence against prominent rights activist Xu Zhiyong, on the same charge of "gathering a crowd to disturb public order", sparking criticism from the US, the European Union and rights groups.
Raphael Droszewski, a first secretary at the EU Delegation to China, said the bloc was concerned about Beijing's prosecution of activists.
"Basically, the EU expressed its deep concern about the confirmation of the sentence of Xu Zhiyong last week, and also its deep concern about the ongoing prosecution of other people advocating the rule of law, transparency, and promoting the fight against corruption," said Droszewski, who had been shut out of Friday's sentencing along with other diplomats.
'New Citizens' Movement'
The Chinese leadership under President Xi Jinping has been pushing efforts against pervasive corruption, which Xi has warned could undermine Communist Party rule.
But at the same time, the government is wary of any challenge to its rule, which is how authorities apparently see calls from activists for officials to declare their wealth.
The government has waged a year-long drive against Xu Zhiyong's "New Citizens' Movement" of which the four activists sentenced on Friday were members.
The group advocates working within the system for change, including urging officials to reveal assets.
Authorities have shown no sign of agreeing to demands for asset disclosures and at least 20 anti-fraud activists have been detained or jailed in the past year.