Policemen stand around Lin Ru, the wife of civil rights lawyer Xia Lin near the Beijing Number 2 People's Intermediate Court after her husband was sentenced to 12 years in prison on fraud charges in Beijing, China September 22, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

By Joseph Campbell

BEIJING (Reuters) – A Chinese court on Thursday jailed a prominent civil rights lawyer for 12 years on fraud charges, his lawyer said, a punishment rights advocates called retaliation for his defense of high-profile clients who had challenged the government.

Policemen stand around Lin Ru, the wife of civil rights lawyer Xia Lin, near the Beijing Number 2 People’s Intermediate Court after her husband was sentenced to 12 years in prison on fraud charges September 22. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Xia Lin, detained by Beijing police in November 2014, is the latest in a series of activists and lawyers to be sentenced as President Xi Jinping’s administration tightens control over civil society, citing a need to boost security and stability.

“Our defense maintained his innocence. We believe this sort of sentence goes against our own views,” Xia’s lawyer Ding Xikui told reporters outside the Beijing Number 2 intermediate court.

Xia’s wife, Lin Ru, said they planned to appeal the sentence.

Security outside the court, where a handful of supporters and family members waited for the ruling, was heavy.

Transcripts of defense documents that his lawyers released earlier showed prosecutors charged Xia had defrauded several people out of at least 10 million yuan (1.15 million pounds) to pay off gambling debts.

But Ding argued that the money was in private loans and was being repaid, that there was no evidence of a gambling debt, and that the loans were personal or civil matters.

Ding told Reuters the court convicted Xia for an unpaid amount of 4.8 million yuan.

Under China’s Criminal Law, fraud crimes involving “especially large” sums such as those alleged in Xia’s case, are punishable by 10 years to life in prison, though official guidelines recommend 10 to 12 years.

Calls to the court were not answered. Its website and official microblog made no mention of the case, and the extent of the evidence against Xia used in his conviction was not clear.

Xia had worked with Pu Zhiqiang, one of China’s best-known human rights lawyers, who was handed a three-year suspended sentence last year for writing internet posts the government said incited ethnic hatred.

He had also represented prominent artist and dissident Ai Weiwei and other critics of the government.

China consistently rejects any criticism of its human rights record.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told reporters at a regular briefing the case was a domestic matter and it would be handled according to the law.

A court in August jailed several activists and lawyers who had been swept up in Xi’s campaign against dissent.

International rights groups have criticized their trials as politically motivated, and the United States has called for their release.

Frances Eve, a Hong Kong-based researcher with Chinese Human Rights Defenders, said Xia’s sentence was “very harsh”.

“This case is severe retaliation against a human rights advocate who defended the rule of law and challenged the government,” Eve said.

(Additional reporting by Sue-Lin Wong; Writing by Michael Martina; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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