HONG KONG — The headlines tell it all. On the front page of the International Herald Tribune: “Activist in China sentenced to 4 years — decision seen as part of a sweeping move to punish dissent.”

For the official Xinhua news agency report on the same story: “Blind mob organizer sentenced to imprisonment.”

Chen Guangcheng is a 34-year-old self-taught lawyer who has been blind since childhood. He became a celebrity because he championed the cause first of other disabled people who had been the victims of discrimination. He then went further and tried to bring a class-action lawsuit against the local government in Shandong province for carrying out a campaign of forced abortion and sterilization to meet birth-control quotas.

Chen was encouraged when an official at the State Family Planning Commission in Beijing acknowledged that officials in Linyi city in Shandong province had broken the law. Evidently, he thought he had the support of the central government.

However, when Linyi officials last September put him under virtual house arrest, the central government gave him no help. He was taken into custody last spring, and in June the local authorities announced that he was being charged with damaging property and organizing a mob to disrupt traffic.

Lawyers flocked to defend him. And yet, just before his trial, three members of his legal team were arrested allegedly on theft charges. When other members of his legal team asked for a postponement, the judge refused, instead appointing two lawyers to represent him with whom he had never discussed the case.

Those lawyers did not object to any of the prosecution’s allegations and did not call any witnesses in his defense.

Chen himself protested against these proceedings by refusing to take part. The judge declared that his silence amounted to an admission of guilt. (In China, the law does not recognize a right to silence.)

It is not clear how a blind person could have been guilty of organizing the damage of property and directing the obstruction of traffic — especially at a time when he was under close police supervision.

Even assuming he had damaged “doors and windows” as well as cars and interrupted traffic for three hours, it is difficult to argue that a four-year prison sentence is somehow proportionate to the offense.

The whole episode is a travesty of justice. The central government no doubt knows that Chen is guilty of no more than standing up for his rights and the rights of others in his community. By allowing him to be subjected to this farcical trial, the government is exposing China itself to international ridicule.

American legal scholar Jerome Cohen, who knows Chen personally, said more in sorrow than in anger: “The extremely harsh sentence for Chen confirms not only the lawlessness and vindictiveness of the authorities of Linyi City but also the determination of the national Communist Party Political-Legal Committee to intimidate and suppress the country’s rising generation of human rights activist-lawyers.”

It is said that a prophet has no honor in his own country. Chen has numerous admirers abroad. Earlier this month, an American official, assistant secretary of State Ellen R. Sauerbrey, urged the Chinese government to release him. That request was ignored and the trial was held nine days later.

Chen was named by Time magazine in April as one of the “Top 100 People who Shape Our World” for 2006 along with such luminaries as American Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, Pope Benedict XVI and China’s Premier Wen Jiabao.

It was no doubt galling for Chinese officials to see someone they consider a troublemaker given the same honor as Wen. It would not be surprising if this was one reason that they decided to bring Chen down a few pegs by throwing him in prison.

What this incident shows is that local authorities in China are free to ride roughshod over anyone who challenges their illegal acts and that the central government will almost always side with provincial officials, regardless of who is right and who is wrong.

The future of China remains bright because of people like Chen and the idealistic lawyers willing to defend him against the arbitrary behavior of officials. Rights consciousness is spreading through the country like wildfire and for every Chen Guangcheng who is imprisoned, 100 more will rise to take his place.

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