BEIJING (AFP) - China has sentenced four young Internet dissidents to lengthy jail terms in what critics say is an intensified crackdown carried out while world attention is focused on the SARS epidemic.
Beijing's No. 1 Intermediate People's Court handed down prison terms of up to 10 years to the four intellectuals, all aged around 30, who had posted their views on social issues online.
Jin Haike and Xu Wei were given 10 year jail terms on Wednesday, while Yang Zili and Zhang Honghai received eight-year sentences, all on subversion charges, said a court spokesman who declined to give his name.
Frank Lu, a Hong Kong-based human rights campaigner, described the sentencing after two years of detention as an opportunistic move by Chinese authorities.
"Now the media are paying attention to SARS, not human rights," he said. "China news is 99 percent about SARS, and there's almost nothing about human rights, so they think it's a good opportunity to deal with the dissidents."
The link between the sentencing and the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) was angrily denied by the Chinese foreign ministry.
"It's irresponsible to make any remarks that do not match with the fact," Zhang Qiyue, the ministry's spokeswoman, told a regular briefing.
"I believe that the judgement and trial (conducted by) the Chinese government have nothing to do with the epidemic currently in the country," she said.
The sentencing of the four came amid what appeared to be stepped-up government efforts to process cases of other detained Internet dissidents.
Huang Qi, one of the first to be arrested for expressing political views on the Internet, was sentenced to five years in prison for subversion earlier this month.
Huang ran a website that carried reports on dissidents, a separatist movement in northwest Xinjiang region, the banned Falungong sect and the suppression of the Tiananmen Square democracy protests of 1989.
Wednesday's trial of the four was accompanied by unusual drama, as Xu, a former journalist and editor, struck his head on the judge's desk and fell unconscious, the Human Rights in China group said in a statement.
Xu had to be carried out of the courtroom by six police officers, and after a recess, the judge delivered his verdict, the New York-based group said.
The four were arrested in March 2001 after they established the "New Youth Association," an intellectual study group that discussed China's growing social problems, including rural issues and widening inequality.
They posted reform-minded essays on the Internet, including one entitled "Be a new citizen, reform China".
The case of the four, formally charged in September 2001, was reopened last month.
During Wednesday's trial, Xu, a former editor at Beijing's Consumer Daily, said he had been tortured while in detention, according to Human Rights in China.
"Xu Wei complained to the court that he had been brutally beaten in custody and tortured with electric shock to his genitals," the group said in a statement.
The sentences showed the Chinese government had learned nothing from the lesson on transparency taught by the outbreak of SARS, which has killed 325 in China, Lu said.
"The four merely tried to push for more open media," he said. "If the media has been allowed to report openly on SARS from the outset, the epidemic might not have happened. Now, new disasters could take place."
The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the sentences and called for the release of the four.
"It's ridiculous that the Chinese government considers the peaceful expression of one's views a subversive act," said the committee's director Ann Cooper.
"These four young writers have already wasted more than two years of their lives detained in legal limbo."