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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; over the official Xinhua news agency report: Blind Mob Organizer Sentenced To Imprisonment.

Chen Guangcheng is a 34-year-old, self-taught lawyer. Blind since childhood, he became a celebrity championing the cause of disabled people who had been the victims of discrimination. He then went further, trying to bring a class-action suit against the local government in Shandong province for a campaign of forced abortion and sterilization to meet birth-control quotas.

When an official at the State Family Planning Commission in Beijing acknowledged that officials in Linyi city in Shandong province had broken the law, Mr. Chen evidently 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. In June, local authorities announced he was being charged with damaging property and organizing a mob to disrupt traffic.

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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 defence.

Mr. Chen 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 property damage and directing the obstruction of traffic -- especially at a time when he was under close police supervision. Even assuming he did damage "doors and windows," as well as cars, and interrupt traffic for three hours, it is difficult to argue a four-year prison sentence is somehow proportionate to the offence.

The whole episode is a travesty of justice. The central government no doubt knows that what Mr. Chen is guilty of is 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 to international ridicule.

American legal scholar Jerome Cohen, who knows Mr. Chen personally, said more in sorrow than in anger: "The extremely harsh sentence for Chen Guangcheng 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 a prophet has no honour in his own country. Mr. Chen has numerous admirers abroad. Earlier this month, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Ellen Sauerbrey urged the Chinese government to release him. That request was ignored. Nine days later, the trial was held.

Mr. Chen was named by Time magazine in April as one of the "Top 100 People Who Shape Our World," along with such luminaries as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Pope Benedict XVI and China's Premier Wen Jiabao.

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It was no doubt galling for Chinese officials to see someone they consider a trouble-maker given the same honour as Mr. Wen. It would not be surprising if this was one reason they decided to bring Mr. Chen down a few pegs by throwing him in prison. What this incident shows is that local authorities 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.

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

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator.

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