BEIJING (Reuters) - A court in China sentenced on Monday a veteran dissident, Chen Xi, to 10 years in jail for subversion, his wife said, one of the heaviest sentences given for political charges since Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo was jailed two years ago.
The court in Guiyang, southwest China, tried Chen, swiftly declared him guilty of "inciting subversion of state power," and said he deserved a tough sentence of a decade in prison, his wife, Zhang Qunxuan, told Reuters by telephone.
"The judge said this was a major crime that had a malign impact and he was a repeated offender," Zhang said by telephone.
"If the government wants democracy and progression, you need people who speak out their negative opinions," she said.
"To subvert you - can he do that? Does he have any army? Does he have a police force? Does he have courts? With a piece of paper and a pen, can he subvert you? Are you so fragile?"
Chen Xi, 57, was convicted over 36 essays critical of the ruling Communist Party that he published on overseas Chinese websites, said Zhang. The trial took about two and half hours, she added.
Chen said he would not appeal, because it would be futile, said Zhang.
An official at the Guiyang People's Intermediate Court telephoned by Reuters declined to give any information or to give contact details for the division of the court that tried Chen, who is also known as Chen Youcai.
"Inciting subversion" is a charge often used to punish dissidents, and China's party-run courts rarely find in favour of defendants in trials, especially for political charges.
Communist Party chiefs are preparing for a leadership handover late next year, when the party's long-standing focus on fending off political challenges is likely to intensify.
"Severe punishment is the Chinese government's clear choice of response to spreading protests at home and in many parts of the world: it is determined to 'kill the chicken in order to frighten the monkeys'," Renee Xia, the international director of the Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an advocacy group, said in emailed comments.
"Killing the chicken to frighten the monkeys," is a Chinese saying meaning singling out victims for harsh treatment in order to deter others.
The long sentence comes days after another dissident -- Chen Wei from Sichuan province in southwest China -- was jailed for nine years on similar charges of "inciting subversion." Chen is a common family name in China, and the two men are not related.
Liu Xiaobo, who was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, was convicted on December 25, 2009, and jailed for 11 years for inciting subversion. In March this year, the dissident Liu Xianbin was also jailed for 10 years on subversion charges.
This month, a Beijing court sent one of China's best known rights lawyers, Gao Zhisheng, back to jail, though he appears never to have escaped secretive confinement in the first place.
Beijing chose the quiet Christmas period for these trials as it was trying to avoid international attention and diplomatic censure, said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher on China for New York-based Human Rights Watch, an advocacy organization.
"It's not the sign of a confident government that feels it has a strong case against a particular individual," he said by telephone. "It's pay-back for decades of standing up to the government."
Police held hundreds of dissidents, rights activists and protest organizers in a crackdown on dissent this year, when the Communist Party sought to prevent the possibility of protests inspired by anti-authoritarian uprisings in the Arab world.
Chen Xi, however, was arrested only last month after being released from a week-long detention triggered by his campaigning for independent candidates seeking to win places in the party-controlled People's Congress assemblies, said Zhang.
Chen is a former soldier and factory worker who was jailed for three years for his support for 1989 pro-democracy protests that ended after troops crushed demonstrations, said his wife.
He was again jailed in 1996, but since his release in 2005 had been an organizer of a citizens' human rights forum in Guiyang.
China uses a "firewall" of Internet filters and blocks to prevent citizens from reading web sites abroad deemed to be politically unacceptable. But many activist use technology to break through obstructions and publish on uncensored websites.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a daily briefing that he did not know about Chen Xi's conviction. China is a "country of rule of law," added Hong.
Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Reuters TV; Editing by Robert Birsel