Authorities in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong have jailed a rights activist who helped local residents pursue petitions and complaints against the government, RFA has learned.
Yu Xinyong was sentenced to four-and-a-half years' imprisonment by the Lixia District People's Court in the provincial capital Jinan, which found him guilty of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," a charge often used to prosecute peaceful critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
The court found that Yu had gathered others to caused public disturbances in Jinan, Zibo, and other places in Shandong, disturbed public order and participated in "so-called rights defending" over a prolonged period.
A source close to Yu who asked to remain anonymous said he had helped some of the most vulnerable people in the province lodge petitions and complaints with government departments.
"Some of the victims [in these cases] had no way to resolve their complaints through normal channels," the source said. "So Yu went to government departments with them to try to stand up for social justice."
"He played a coordinating role, so that officials and petitioners would have a better way to resolve complaints about unjust treatment," the source said.
A defense attorney hired by Yu's family withdrew from the case last month, citing concerns over the coronavirus pandemic, and an officially approved rights lawyer was appointed instead, the source said.
"Really, Yu's actions should be encouraged and supported ... but this is an obvious case of retaliation and suppression because he harmed the vested interests of those in power," the source said.
Yu had also taken part in activities commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen massacre that put an end to weeks of student-led protest around the country in the spring of that year.
He was initially held under criminal detention in 2018, just before the politically sensitive anniversary on suspicion of inciting an illegal assembly.
One charge dropped
He was also accused of smearing the name of Communist Party general secretary Xi Jinping through references to historical events in a video he posted online, but that charge was later dropped owing to insufficient evidence.
"We don't know the exact reason this charge was withdrawn," the source told RFA.
Yu's family have been placed under strong pressure from the authorities not to give media interviews, the source said.
"Initially, the elder brother gave an interview, but after that he didn't dare speak out again," the source said. "I don't know what kind of pressure was put on him, but he was very scared."
"He also kept advising me to be careful, so I was pretty scared, too."
Another activist detained
Fellow Shandong activist Li Hongwei was detained around the same time as Yu, but was released on bail.
She said Yu had no intention of causing trouble for the authorities, but had just tried to help people who had nobody else to fight in their corner.
"Specialized lawyers ask for too much money, and ordinary people are very poor and generally can't afford the money it takes to go to court," Li said.
"Yu Xinyong is a very warm-hearted person with a bit of education, and he was willing to do this for them," she said. "He spoke out on their behalf and he made the information public."
"But now he is being treated as if he acted against the government, and they have pinned charges on him," she said.
Yu first appeared on the radar of China's extensive domestic security network for "stability maintenance" after he set up the Shandong Rights Defenders group and a second group monitoring cases of police violence a few years ago.
Reported by Gao Feng for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.