BEIJING-In the darkest of ironies, as the Olympic torch was lit in Athens yesterday, a court in China sentenced a man to five years in prison after he dared to say the principle of human rights is more important than the Olympic Games.Unemployed former factory worker, Yang Chunlin, 54, gathered more than 10,000 signatures on a petition last year, appealing against illegal seizures of land from poor farmers by powerful local officials in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang.
The petition letter began: "We want human rights, not the Olympics."
Yang was promptly arrested July 6 and charged with trying to subvert state power - a broad charge frequently used against those who openly criticize the government.
After Yang's trial last month - which lasted less than a day - Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch said she feared that, "soon it will be official that objecting to the Olympics is a crime in China."
In fact, prosecution of outspoken Chinese citizens has picked up pace in the final months before the Games.
Yang's is the third case of a well-known dissident to come before the courts in recent weeks.
Last month, democracy activist and writer Lu Gengsong was sentenced to four years for "inciting to subvert state power."
And last week well-known activist Hu Jia was hauled before the courts, but he has yet to be sentenced.
Hu Jia is perhaps best-known for his work in helping HIV/AIDS victims. He and his wife Zeng Jinyan had been kept under house arrest for months in Beijing, before he was finally arrested on Dec. 27.
Yang Chunlin's 5-year sentence yesterday, comes only weeks after Chinese Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi, publicly scoffed at suggestions that any citizen might be sentenced for saying human rights were more important than the Olympics.
"People in China enjoy extensive freedom of speech," Yang told reporters during an official visit by British Foreign Minister David Milibank. "No one will get arrested because he said that human rights are more important than the Olympics. This is impossible.
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"Ask 10 people from the street to face public security officers and ask them to say `human rights are more important than the Olympics' 10 times or even 100 times, and let's see which security officer would put him in jail."
During Yang's time in jail, the group China Human Rights Defenders claimed he was chained for days in a fixed position and forced to clean the waste of other inmates.
Yesterday, as Yang was being led away from court, a scuffle broke out between police and his family, and Yang was pushed to the floor and shocked with electric batons, according to his lawyer Li Fangping.
Yang now has 10 days to decide whether he will appeal, Li told The Associated Press.
While Yang was being sentenced in China, International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge was insisting to reporters in Athens that it was "right" to have awarded the Olympic Games to China, saying the event would act as a "catalyst" for change.
He said it wasn't in his or the IOC's job to dictate directives to a sovereign state, or to engage it in political discussions.
Still, human rights campaigners decried the yesterday's sentencing.
"Yang Chunlin's 5-year sentence darkensthe lighting of the Beijing Olympics torch," Sharon Hom of Human Rights in China, told the Star from New York.
"Imprisonment for peacefully expressing your views - protected by the Chinese Constitution and international human rights law - undermines any claim to the `human rights' progress cited IOC President Jacques Rogge," she said.
China has made it clear that it will not brook any embarrassing protests highlighting political or social problems during the Games.
But human rights campaigners have vowed to seize the opportunity to protest while the world's eyes are on China.
© 2008 The Toronto Star