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China court sends outspoken businessman behind bars for 18 years

BEIJING, China: A Chinese court has sentenced a prominent businessman to 18 years in prison for criticising the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and supporting pro-democracy movements.

Sun Dawu runs one of the country’s largest private agricultural businesses in the northern province of Hebei.

Sun, 67, has in the past spoken out about human rights and politically sensitive topics.

He was found guilty of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” – a charge often used against activists.

Other charges against him include illegally occupying farmland, assembling a crowd to attack state agencies and obstructing government workers from performing their duties. He was also fined 3.11 million yuan ($478,697).

The verdict was delivered after two weeks of hearings that dealt with a series of business and personal disputes involving Sun, his family and partners, many of which took place years ago.

Sun’s company is among China’s biggest, with businesses ranging from meat processing and pet food to schools and hospitals.

He was reportedly detained last year, along with 20 relatives and business associates, over a land dispute with a government-run farm.

At the time, he said dozens of his employees were injured in an incident with police related to the dispute.

Sun is said to be close to some prominent Chinese political dissidents and has in the past criticised the government’s rural policies.

He was one of the few people to openly accuse the government of covering up an African swine flu outbreak, which affected his farms in 2019, and later devastated much of the country’s industry.

He also was sentenced to prison in 2003, for “illegal fundraising” but the case was overturned after an outpouring of support from activists and the public.

Sun reportedly denied many of the accusations against him in a pre-trial hearing, describing himself as an “outstanding Communist party member”.

He did, however, reportedly admit to making mistakes, including posting messages online.

“The way they’re investigating me now is making those close to us suffer and those who hate us rejoice. I wish to take the charges upon myself, even if they’re severe, in exchange for the release of others. We are people who have made contributions to society,” he said.

Sun, the founder of Dawu Group, one of China’s most successful private agricultural groups, was detained alongside multiple family members and business partners last November after employees violently clashed with workers of a state-run farm over a longstanding land dispute.

Gaobeidian People’s Court in Hebei province, about 90km south of Beijing, on Wednesday, found Sun guilty on multiple charges including fraud, gathering a crowd to attack state organs, illegal occupation of agricultural land and picking quarrels, according to statements from his lawyers.