BEIJING — A Chinese court handed down a harsh 11-year sentence to a prominent dissident Friday on subversion charges after he called for sweeping political reforms and an end to Communist Party dominance.
The sentencing of Liu Xiaobo comes despite international appeals for his release. Rights groups said the harshness of the sentence was a warning to others who challenge China's one-party rule.
Liu was the co-author of an unusually direct appeal for political liberalization in China called Charter 08. He was detained just before it was released last December. More than 300 people, including some of China's top intellectuals, signed it.
The verdict was issued at the No. 1 Intermediate People's Court in Beijing after a two-hour trial Wednesday in which prosecutors accused Liu of "serious" crimes.
"All I can tell you now is 11 years," the defendant's wife, Liu Xia, told The Associated Press on Friday. Diplomats said they were told by Liu's lawyers that he had been deprived of his political rights for a further two years.
The vaguely worded charge of inciting to subvert state power is routinely used to jail dissidents. Liu could have been sentenced for up to 15 years in prison under the charge.
A San Francisco-based human rights group, the Dui Hua Foundation, said it was the longest sentence that it knew of since the crime of inciting subversion was established in 1997.
Liu is the only person to have been arrested for organizing the Charter 08 appeal, but others who signed it have reported being harassed.
Abolishing the law on inciting to subvert state power is among the reforms advocated in Charter 08. "We should end the practice of viewing words as crimes," the petition says.
Liu's wife was allowed to meet with him for 10 minutes after the sentencing and said he planned to appeal.
"Our lawyers are going to talk to the authorities next week about the appeal," Liu Xia said. She said her husband looked calm and asked about family and friends during their meeting.
The United States and European Union have urged Beijing to free Liu.
"We are deeply concerned by the sentence of 11 years in prison announced today," Gregory May, first secretary with the U.S. Embassy, told reporters outside the courthouse. May was one of a dozen diplomats stopped by authorities from attending the trial and sentencing.
"Persecution of individuals for the peaceful expression of political views is inconsistent with internationally recognized norms of human rights," May said.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters this week that statements from embassies calling for Liu's release were "a gross interference of China's internal affairs."
New York-based Human Rights Watch said the ruling showed the government would be taking a hard line against human rights activists in the year ahead.
"This verdict is also an explicit warning from the government to China's intellectuals, civil society activists and human rights defenders that the state will severely punish those who the government perceives as a threat to its monopoly on power," said the group's Asia researcher, Phelim Kine.
"I think it is an absolute Draconian sentence," said Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, a New York-based group.
"This is a gutting of any pretext of any freedom of expression in China," she said.
Liu, a former Beijing Normal University professor, spent 20 months in jail for joining the 1989 student-led protests in Tiananmen Square, which ended when the government called in the military – killing hundreds, perhaps thousands.
More than 300 international writers, including Salman Rushdie, Umberto Eco and Margaret Atwood, have called for Liu's release, saying he should be allowed to express his opinion.
Charter 08 demands a new constitution guaranteeing human rights, the open election of public officials, and freedom of religion and expression. Some 10,000 people have signed it in the past year, though a news blackout and Internet censorship have left most Chinese unaware that it exists.
Liu has been the only person arrested over the charter, but rights groups said several signers had been harassed or fired from their jobs, and had been warned not to attend the trial or write about it online.
Associated Press writer Isolda Morillo contributed to this report.