By Christian Shepherd
BEIJING (Reuters) - A Chinese court on Tuesday sentenced the founder of a website that reported on human rights abuses to five years in jail for "inciting subversion" of state power, a verdict decried by a rights group as part of a campaign to bury grassroots activism.
Since coming to power in 2012, President Xi Jinping has overseen a sweeping drive to stifle activism that challenges the ruling Communist Party.
Liu Feiyue, the founder of msguancha.com, a news portal that covers government corruption, police abuses and human rights issues, was arrested in late 2016 and charged with "inciting subversion of state power".
The Intermediate People's Court sentenced Liu to five years in prison and seized more than 1 million yuan ($148,326) of his personal assets, according to the website of the court in Suizhou city in Hubei province.
It was not possible to contact Liu for comment.
"I really can't understand it. All I know is that Liu Feiyue just set up a website for internet users to write about social issues and inequality," Liu's mother, Ding Qihua, told Reuters by phone.
She said the sentence was harsher than expected, given that the family had hoped for leniency by complying fully with the court's requests.
There was no response when Reuters called the Suizhou court on Tuesday.
China rejects criticism of its human rights record, saying it is a country with rule of law and that jailed rights lawyers and activists are criminals who have broken the law.
Hundreds of rights lawyers have been detained and dozens jailed in a series of arrests commonly known as "709" cases, referring to July 9, 2015, when a countrywide operation rounded up core members of the group.
On Monday, in the last of the "709" cases to go to trial, a court jailed rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang for 4-1/2 years on charges of subversion.
The U.S. State Department said on Tuesday it was "deeply concerned" by Wang Quanzhang's sentencing and called for his immediate release.
"We remain concerned by the deteriorating situation for the rule of law, human rights, and fundamental freedoms in China, and continue to urge China to uphold its international human rights commitments and to respect the rule of law," it said in a statement.
Aside from targeting lawyers, Beijing has in recent years clamped down on grassroots activism and muckracking websites, in what rights groups say is an attempt to cut off rights activism at its roots.
"Prosecuting the editor of a human rights website shows just how frightened the Chinese government is about independent reporting on abuses from inside China," Yaqiu Wang, a Hong Kong-based researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
(Reporting by Christian Shepherd in Beijing; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Darren Schuettler and Peter Cooney)