BEIJING -- In the first acknowledgment of legal actions against activists after the 1989 pro-democracy protests here, China announced yesterday that seven protesters, including four accused student leaders, have been sentenced to prison for two to four years.
The four students, all from Beijing-area universities, are the first known recipients of court sentences from among a "most-wanted" list of 21 students labeled as ringleaders of the demonstrations that China's army brutally crushed in June 1989.
Foreign analysts expect yesterday's sentences to be followed in the coming weeks by a series of court actions involving other jailed dissidents.
More than a dozen other prominent activists reportedly face more serious charges that could lead to lengthier prison terms. Two of them have been charged with sedition, which could result in their execution, according to notices received by their families.
In recent weeks, Chinese authorities have refused to acknowledge that trials of pro-democracy protesters were about to begin. Requests by the foreign press to attend these trials have been denied.
But Beijing-based diplomats have said that they expect China to attempt to deal by the end of the next month, if not sooner, with many of the cases of those still imprisoned as a result of the massive 1989 protests.
Some diplomats say that the trials are beginning now because Chinese authorities believe the world is too preoccupied with the Persian Gulf crisis to pay attention to the issue of human rights violations in China.
"We keep hearing that they want to get the trials under way by Jan. 15," one Western diplomat said, referring to the United Nations deadline for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait.
China's state news agency said that the seven activists were sentenced yesterday by the Beijing Intermediate People's Court in the presence of relatives of some of the accused and of "more than 60 local residents." The accused were defended by lawyers or relatives, the official news service said.
Two other dissidents also were tried by the court but were released without further jail sentences because they had "committed minor crimes and showed willingness of repentance," the state news service said.
The announcement did not specify which crimes the seven were convicted of committing in 1989. But it said that the offenses included inciting acts aimed at subverting the government and overthrowing the socialist system, organizing attacks against troops sent to enforce martial law in Beijing and "seriously undermining public order."
The four sentenced students who were on authorities' "most-wanted" list are: Zheng Xuguang, a Beijing Space and Aeronautics University student, who received a two-year sentence; Wang Youcai, a Beijing University physics graduate student, sentenced to four years in prison; Zhang Ming, a Qinghua University engineering student, and Ma Shaofang, of Beijing Film Academy, who both received three-year jail terms. All are in their 20s.
The other three who were sentenced and the two who were released without punishment could not be identified yesterday.
China released about 900 imprisoned activists in the first half of last year and then acknowledged that 355 other protesters still were in jail. International human rights groups believe that the actual number still in prison in China as a result of the 1989 protests could exceed 1,000.