The severity of some sentences, together with other recent moves against dissidents, suggests Peking has intensified its repression of activists at a time when the central government is concerned about social stability.
The harshest sentence was passed on Hu Shigen, 39, a former lecturer at the Peking Languages Institute who was found guilty of "organising and leading a counter-revolutionary group" and spreading "counter-revolutionary propaganda". Kang Yuchun, 30, a doctor, received 17 years on the same charges. Liu Jingsheng, 40, a chemical-factory worker and veteran activist from the Democracy Wall era in the late Seventies, was jailed for 15 years. Wang Guoqi, 32 and unemployed, was jailed for 11 years for leading a counter-revolutionary group.
As the verdicts were passed, there was a heavy police presence around the Peking Intermediate People's Court. Relatives were barred from entering.
The trial opened in July when 15 activists were charged with various "counter-revolutionary" offences. Most had been detained in May and June 1992 in a government crackdown on pro-democracy organisations.
The date had been repeatedly postponed so it would not influence Peking's bid to host the 2000 Olympics or President Bill Clinton's decision in May to renew China's Most Favoured Nation trade status.
The activists allegedly belonged to three banned groups: the Liberal Democratic Party, the China Progressive Alliance, and the Free Labour Union of China. They were accused of planning to distribute leaflets around 4 June 1992 to mark the third anniversary of the Tiananmen Square shootings. Yesterday nine were jailed, one placed under supervision, and five had their charges dropped.
Human Rights Watch/Asia called the sentences "appallingly severe". The sentencing is the latest sign of Peking's growing confidence since President Clinton's decision to break the link between China's human rights record and its trade privileges.
In October, three prominent Shanghai activists received three-year labour-camp terms without a trial. China's most famous dissident, Wei Jingsheng, has been held by police since April without charge.
Earlier this month, Wang Dan, a student leader of June 1989, filed a lawsuit complaining about severe police harassment and surveillance. Soon afterwards, 22 famous dissidents wrote an open letter urging greater monitoring of human rights violations in the country.At the moment, the Chinese government prefers its dissidents to leave the country for good.
At the end of last month, the well-known Chinese poet and political exile, Bei Dao, 45, flew into Peking from San Francisco to visit his parents and daughter. Instead he was held for 12 hours at the airport, questioned,told to confess and repent and put on a plane back to the US.
n Britain's chief negotiator on Hong Kong yesterday complained of slow momentum in the latest negotiations with China,, writes Michael Sheridan.
Hugh Davies said Britain and China still had to agree on.the construction of a container terminal and the establishment of a court of final appeal. "We failed to achieve the necessary momentum. We are going to have to do very much better in the remainingtwo-and-a-half years," he said.