Chinese authorities accused of 'silencing critics' after activists and lawyers jailed

The former director at a high-profile legal firm has been sentenced to seven years in jail for 'subversion'

Chinese authorities accused of 'silencing critics' after activists and lawyers jailed

In this photo taken Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2016, an elderly man and woman ride on an electric bike past the Chinese words for Tianjin No. 2 Intermediate People's Court in northern China's Tianjin Municipality. Image: Ng Han Guan / AP/Press Association Images

The founder of a Chinese law firm has been jailed for seven years for 'subversion', marking the latest development in what has been called a 'crackdown' on human rights activists in the country.

Zhou Shifeng was a former director at the Fengrui firm in Beijing, a firm known for its involvement in a number of 'sensitive' cases.

The firm was involved in some of the legal action following the 'baby milk scandal' that saw tens of thousands of children hospitalised as a result of contaiminated infant formula.

The Associated Press reports the firm has also represented clients who had been targeted by the Chinese government, including artist Ai Weiwei.

According to the South China Morning Post, Mr Shifeng was found guilty of "ordering his staff to 'spread rumours and sensationalise sensitive cases' in an effort to overthrow the rule of the Communist Party".

He reportedly told the court that "I sincerely plead guilty and [regret] my sins” and pledged not to appeal. 

The verdict came after a trial at Tianjin No 2 Intermediate People’s Court that lasted less than three hours.

The sentence follows a number of other high-profile convictions in recent days.

Earlier this week democracy activist and church leader Hu Shigen was sentenced to seven-and-a half-years in prison for “subverting state power".

Another activist, Zhai Yanmin, was given a three-year suspended sentence.

Amnesty International claims 248 human rights lawyers and activists have been targeted by Chinese authorities since a crackdown began in July 2015.

Roseann Rife, East Asia Research Director at Amnesty, said: “This wave of trials against lawyers and activists are a political charade. Their fate was sealed before they stepped into the courtroom and there was no chance that they would ever receive a fair trial.

“The Chinese authorities appear intent on silencing anyone who raises legitimate questions about human rights and uses the legal system to seek redress," she added.

The trials have also been criticised by Human Rights Watch, with the organisation's China director Sophie Richardson arguing: “These cases lay bare Chinese authorities’ shameless manipulation of the legal system to silence rule of law advocates and critics."