Reuters International

BEIJING (Reuters) - A court in China jailed a prominent human rights lawyer for seven years on Thursday for subverting the government, state media said, the latest in a string of convictions linked to an unprecedented crackdown on legal defenders.

Zhou Shifeng, 51, the director of the Beijing Fengrui law firm, is among dozens of lawyers and activists who since July last year have been swept up in a crackdown on dissent.

President Xi Jinping's administration has tightened control over almost every aspect of civil society since 2012, citing the need to buttress national security and stability.

But the detention and prosecution of lawyers and activists have caused an outcry among international rights groups and foreign governments, including the United States and Germany.

China consistently rejects any criticism of its human rights record, saying it adheres to the rule of law.

Zhou pleaded guilty to subversion of state power and would not appeal the sentence issued by a court in the northern city of Tianjin, the official Xinhua news agency said.

"Zhou Shifeng had long been influenced by anti-China forces" and had hyped cases and made remarks online and offline about "overturning the government", Xinhua citied prosecutors as saying.

Authorities have accused Zhou's firm, which has represented high-profile clients such as ethnic Uighur dissident Ilham Tohti, of orchestrating protests and politicising legal cases in order to attract international attention.

China has blamed foreign groups, such as non-governmental organisations, for stirring up trouble, including pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2014.

Xinhua said Zhou had confessed that the firm's actions had drawn the attention of "foreign forces".

"They actively enticed me, wanted to use us to continue to attack court trials, attack China's entire trial and judicial system, and bring trouble to the government. Their ultimate goal is to overthrow the Communist Party leadership," Zhou said in a prosecutor's statement, according the Xinhua.

The court did not answer phone calls seeking comment.

In China, subversion charges are commonly levelled against critics of the party.

Advocates for Zhou have told Reuters his previous legal team had been replaced by government-appointed lawyers. Human rights groups argue that fair trials in such cases are not possible.

The Tianjin court this week also sentenced Zhou's associates, activists Zhai Yanmin and Hu Shigen, on similar charges.

Roseann Rife, East Asia research director at Amnesty International, said in statement Zhou's conviction was the latest in a series of "sham trials".

(Reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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