Xu Zhiyong also known as one of China's most prominent human rights activists who openly speak on the issue of Tibet, including self-immolation protest. Chinese authorities accused him of "organising, masterminding and implementing" at least seven protests last year.
Amid tight security, the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People's Court handed down the verdict against Xu, founder of the loosely knit New Citizens movement, in a blow to the movement and China's rights activism.
Xu and his lawyer, Zhang Qingfang, chose to remain silent throughout most of the trial. At the end, Xu began to read a final statement entitled "In the name of freedom, justice and love," but the judge cut him short after five minutes. Zhang had planned to call 68 defence witnesses but the court did not allow any of them to testify.
Xu told "the court that the last shred of dignity of China's rule of law was destroyed today," lawyer Zhang Qingfang said before he was escorted away by police and shoved into a police van.
In 2012, Xu travelled to north-east Tibetan town of Barma to investigate the spiralling number of self-immolators in Tibet. A young Tibetan named Nangdrol had set himself on fire near Zamthang monastery earlier that year. Upon returning, he wrote an op-ed for The New York Times titled 'Tibet is Burning'.
"I am sorry we Han Chinese have been silent as Nangdrol and his fellow Tibetans are dying for freedom. We are victims ourselves, living in estrangement, infighting, hatred and destruction. We share this land. It's our shared home, our shared responsibility, our shared dream — and it will be our shared deliverance", he wrote in the article.
Paraphrasing the note left by Nangdrol, Xu calls the current situation in Tibet "scarless torture." He writes about his fellow passengers on his ride to Nangdrol's hometown:
"Pardon me, but do you hate the Hans?" I asked them because Nangdrol had used the term "Han devils" in his suicide note. 'They'd heard about Nangdrol. When I told them I was there to visit Nangdrol's parents to express my sadness, they told me more,' Xu said.
They said they'd been to the site, as hundreds of Tibetans had. People had set up white tents at the intersection where he died. "He is our hero," one said.
It was dark when we arrived in Barma. At a lamppost, one of my fellow passengers asked a man for directions but was waved off. At a crossroads, he asked two men on motorcycles and an argument broke out. A monk came to the window to examine me.
"We are Tibetans," he said all of a sudden as we left Barma in silence to spend the night in a nearby town. "We are Buddhists, but we can't go to Lhasa without a permit." Years ago, you could see many Tibetans on their pilgrimage to Lhasa, but not anymore.
"Are you Buddhist followers?" I asked them. One of them showed me a pendant portrait of the Dalai Lama that he pulled out from his chest. "He is our true Holiness," he said.
Xu has been under house arrest since 2009, detained and finally arrested formally on 22 August 2013 on the charges of "assembling a crowd to disrupt order in a public place."
The trials of other members of the New Citizens Movement that Xu founded, at least 20 and trying 10 on charges of disrupting public order. Xu was the first to be sentenced, on Sunday. – Ding Jiaxi, Li Wei, Zhang Baocheng and Yuan Dong – have begun since end of Xu's trial.
As part of the current crackdown and wave of censorship, the well-known blogger and dissident Hu Jia was arrested at his Beijing home on 26 January and was held for several hours on suspicion of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble."
"The New Citizens Movement is not going to disappear because of the crackdown," Hu told Reporters Without Borders. "We are going to continue demonstrating to get Communist Party officials to declare their assets and to obtain the release of our members who have been arrested."
Hu added: "The arrests of members of the New Citizens Movement by the party's political police constitute violations of civil liberties. Xu Zhiyong and the others are innocent. It is the members of the Communist Party's judicial apparatus who are guilty."
Earlier this month, the authorities took away Ilham Tohti, a Uighur scholar and outspoken critic of China's ethnic policies. A police statement accused the university professor of separatism, inciting ethnic hatred and advocating violence to oppose China's rule over the far west region of Xinjiang, home to the ethnic minority of Turkic-speaking Muslim Uighurs.
Xu's verdict drew widespread criticism, with U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki saying in a statement that the U.S. was "deeply disappointed" and that Beijing should release Xu.
"We condemn both the harshness of the sentence and the way the trial was conducted," said Benjamin Ismail, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific desk.
"The judicial authorities flouted many procedural regulations, including those governing the right of defence. This legal farce was deplorable and confirms that the government has no time for international conventions. We call for Xu's immediate release," the Reporters Without Borders added.
Amnesty International called the imprisonment a travesty and Human Rights Watch said convicting Xu "makes a mockery" of Chinese President Xi Jinping's crusade against corruption.
The International Tibet Network, a global coalition of about 190 Tibet campaign groups, on Jan 21 expressed serious concern about Xu's trial. "Xu Zhiyong is a compassionate, courageous human rights defender, who has the respect and appreciation of Tibetans and supporters for his writings on Tibet," said Tenzin Jigdal, the coalition's International Coordinator.
European diplomats also called on Chinese authorities to release Xu immediately. Raphael Droszewski, first secretary of the European Union delegation to China, said the case has "heightened our concern at the situation being faced by a number of Chinese human rights defenders who have been prosecuted in relation to peaceful action against corruption and public advocacy of the law, transparency and social justice."
Xu Zhiyong, 40, a lawyer and human rights advocate, is a founder of Gongmeng, the Open Constitution Initiative founded in May 2012 to push for social equality and a fair legal system.
The nonprofit campaigned for migrants' children, homeowners forced from their residences, and death-row inmates, and sought legal redress for parents whose babies had been poisoned by melamine-tainted milk. The nonprofit also produced an independent assessment of the cause of mass protests in Tibet in 2008.
In 2009, the organisation published a 22 page report suggested that a new aristocracy has seized control in the Tibetan region and these rulers in Tibet are funded by Beijing in return for absolute loyalty. To cover their shortcomings, and retain their total authority, they had spread propaganda blaming His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The report said that the failed Chinese government policies in Tibet was the cause of the mass protests in Lhasa and other Tibetan regions in 2008. The Chinese authority had blamed His Holiness the Dalai Lama for instigating the protests.