Rights groups in Hong Kong and abroad Tuesday denounced a Chinese court's verdict to sentence former Hong Kong bookseller Gui Minhai to 10 years in prison on charges of "illegally providing intelligence to foreign entities."
They said the verdict only serves to send a chilling warning to dissidents in China and Hong Kong at a time when public anger at China's top leadership over what critics call its lackluster management of the coronavirus outbreak have widened.
They called on the international leaders to pressure China into releasing Gui immediately.
"The deplorable verdict and shockingly harsh sentence handed to Gui on completely unsubstantiated charges demonstrates yet again that the Chinese authorities are not letting the coronavirus crisis distract them from repressing dissidents," said Patrick Poon, China researcher of Amnesty International in an open statement.
Calling Gui's sentence "outrageous," the rights group demanded China to unconditionally release Gui unless it can provide solid evidence of the crimes Gui has allegedly committed.
It also accuses the Chinese authorities of secretly trying and denying Gui of an open and fair trial.
On Monday, the Ningbo Intermediate People's Court announced on its website that Gui, 55, was found guilty of "providing intelligence to foreign entities" after being indicted by local prosecutors in January.
After alleged trials in the past two months, he has been sentenced to 10 years in prison and deprived of political rights for five years, the statement said, adding that Gui himself has also pleaded guilty and decided not to appeal.
The judiciary there said it has safeguarded Gui's legal rights and the trial was open to some people, according to its public announcement, which however gave no details.
But Lam Wing Kei, Gui's former colleague at Causeway Bay Books, also said Gui's sentencing doesn't make sense since he was just a businessman who tried to make profits from book sales.
The verdict, he added, came at a sensitive time when China's handling of the nation's worst public health crisis has weakened the authority of its Communist leadership.
Chinese leaders appeared to use Gui as an example to hush dissidents up, Lam suspected. "
The [leadership] is now very fearful and worried about its own governance. So it is using the verdict to send a serious warning to dissidents," Lam told VOA in Taipei, where he plans to reopen Causeway Bay Books.
And the verdict will have a ripple effect in Hong Kong.
"There are also many dissidents in Hong Kong. One day if they are taken to China, won't they share the similar fate and been given as a harsh sentence as 10 years or more?" he added.
Knowledge of 'state secrets'
Both Lam and Gui were among those five booksellers in Hong Kong who disappeared in 2015 after publishing books critical of the Chinese government.
Gui first disappeared from his vacation home in Thailand and then reappeared in early 2016 in an apparent forced confession on Chinese state media.
He was later jailed for his alleged involvement in a 2003 hit-and-run case.
Gui was released in 2017 but remained under tight police surveillance.
While traveling to Beijing for medical reasons with two Swedish diplomats in early 2018, Gui, a Swedish citizen until he reapplied Chinese citizenship later that year, was seized again by China's plainclothes police.
After authorities in China claimed that Gui had handed over 'intelligence' while in their custody, AI's Poon said he suspected that China might have targeted his trip to Beijing with those two Swedish diplomats.
But Lam doubted how Gui could produce and deliver intelligence since he was under China's custody in the past two years.
Peter Dablin, a Swedish activist who used to work with rights lawyers in China, said in a written reply to VOA that Gui's conviction is a sign that China does not really care about upholding appearances anymore.
He said that the only 'state secrets' that Gui may have is knowledge about how Chinese agents kidnapped and tortured him.
"It has long been feared that China could not leave Gui, as it could not allow information about his treatment, and kidnapping, to come out, and this is just one in a long list of steps they have taken," Dablin said.
Sending shock waves to Hong Kong
Gui's conviction, moreover, sends shock waves throughout Hong Kong as the city's anti-China democracy fighters have grown discontented with the Chinese government's repressive rule, said Emily Lau, former chairperson of Hong Kong's Democratic Party.
She said that many have marched and supported the innocence of these five booksellers. "
His daughter, Angela, who has been in Europe, kept saying that her father is innocent. And now, he's being given [a] 10-year sentence and not an open and fair trial. So, this is very very disturbing, I think, not just to Hong Kong and must be to the international human rights community," she said.
VOA's email request to Angela Gui for comments went unanswered.
In a statement, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) also condemns China's "outrageous travesty of justice" and calls on the world's democracies to press China into releasing Gui soon.
Its president Erik Halkjaer said, in a statement, that "this case sets a dangerous precedent in which Beijing has assumed the right to kidnap an EU citizen... give him a jail term that amounts to a death sentence in the light of his state of health."
"If it doesn't encounter more resistance, Xi Jinping's regime will know that it can act with impunity when it kidnaps its opponents anywhere in the world, holds them incommunicado ... [and] parades them on TV like cattle at a fair," the statement added.