BEIJING -- China, moving to wrap up its trials of dissidents before Friday's Lunar New Year, handed down yesterday the stiffest sentences to date against those involved in the 1989 pro-democracy protests here, giving two longtime, unrepentant dissidents 13-year jail terms.
A third pro-democracy activist was given a six-year sentence because he "acknowledged his crimes," and a fourth "was exempted from criminal punishment" because he had voluntarily given himself up to the police in 1989, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
The four intellectuals -- who had been labeled by authorities as "the black hands" behind the massive 1989 protests crushed by the Chinese army and who already have been in jail more than a year -- faced possible execution on sedition charges, the most serious accusation brought against any of the pro-democracy activists.
Their separate, one-day trials, which took place over the past week and which were closed to foreign observers, are expected to conclude a five-week-long wave of legal actions involving more than 30 prominent dissidents arrested after the end of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in June 1989.
No other charges are known to have been brought against other imprisoned activists, but hundreds, if not thousands, of them are thought to be in prisons, labor camps and detention centers.
The two sentenced to 13-year jail terms, Chen Ziming and Wang Juntao, have long histories of involvement in pro-democracy movements, dating back to the April 5th Movement in 1976. As with the 1989 demonstrations, that Tiananmen Square protest originally was labeled "counterrevolutionary."
But both men were praised as he roes less than three years later with the onset of the reforms initiated by China's paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping. And this time, both men apparently have again refused to repent for their alleged subversion.
Mr. Chen, 38, who founded a private economic studies institute involved with the 1989 protests, reportedly has been on a hunger strike for several days. Mr. Wang, 33, the editor of an economic journal published by Mr. Chen's institute, is said by his family to have been suffering from hepatitis for several weeks.
Yesterday's announcement of their sentences accused the two of inciting "subversion of the people's government and the socialist system" and directing attacks on the Chinese army when it moved brutally to squash the protests.
The alleged "serious crimes" committed by Liu Gang, 30, a student leader sentenced to six years in jail, and Chen Xiaoping, 29, a law lecturer given no further punishment, were not specified.
Foreign diplomats theorize that Chinese authorities, desperately striving to cast an image of stability, have sought to wrap up the publicly brought cases against well-known dissidents before the Chinese New Year this Friday, a traditional time for acts of government benevolence and for new beginnings.
The timing of the trials also is believed to have been keyed to the Persian Gulf war, which has diverted the world's attention.
Some foreign analysts anticipate that officials may choose to mark the New Year with an announcement of the release of some of those still imprisoned. Despite repeated requests from Western nations, China has never given a full accounting of these prisoners, though about 880 of them were freed in two releases last year and about 65 others were freed last month as part of the recent wave of legal proceedings, according to Chinese statements.
Apart from those sentenced yesterday, about 16 other democracy activists have been publicly sentenced since Jan. 5 to prison terms of two to seven years.
More than 40 others involved in the protests and accused of committing violent crimes are believed by Western human rights organizations to have been executed over the past 19 months. Hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand, are believed to have died when the Chinese army opened fire on the protesters to disperse them June 3-4, 1989.
The United States raised objections to the trials again yesterday.
Margaret D. Tutwiler, State Department spokeswoman, charged that "no prison sentence imposed for non-violent political activity can be considered lenient."
"Moreover, the speed of the verdicts, the limited opportunity afforded defendants to prepare a defense and the inability of independent observers to attend the trials inevitably raises questions of justice, fairness and due process," she said.