Sun Dawu, 67 years old, was convicted Wednesday of crimes that included agitating crowds against state organs, illegal fundraising and unlawful occupation of farmland, a municipal court in the northern city of Gaobeidian said in a notice published on its website. He was also fined about 3.1 million yuan, the equivalent of about $405,500.
Mr. Sun’s company, Dawu Agricultural and Animal Husbandry Group, had been publicly feuding with a state-owned farm in China’s northern city of Baoding over a long-running land dispute when police detained him, members of his family and other senior Dawu executives in November.
Prosecutors formally brought charges in May against Mr. Sun, his company and 19 other defendants, including two brothers and two sons of Mr. Sun. The trial started in July and lasted roughly two weeks, in proceedings that defense lawyers involved say were conducted with unusual urgency.
The court said Dawu Group and other defendants were given “corresponding penalties,” but didn’t provide details. Mr. Sun’s 19 fellow defendants were given jail sentences ranging from one to 12 years, while the company was ordered to pay the equivalent of more than $130 million in fines, restitution and refunds for money they were deemed to have raised illegally, their defense team said.
The case against Mr. Sun, who has gained prominence in China speaking up for farmers and rural businesses, has rippled through Chinese social media and unnerved many within the country’s legal and business circles.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping, since taking power in late 2012, has sought to strengthen Communist Party control over the economy, bolstering support for state enterprises while demanding that private businesses show loyalty to the party and serve the state’s interests.
Though Mr. Xi has pledged to strengthen rule of law and provide more support for entrepreneurs, some local governments have intervened in commercial disputes in favor of state businesses, such as by applying legal tools to pressure their private-sector rivals, Chinese lawyers say.
Lawyers involved in the Dawu case have accused authorities of handling the prosecution with undue haste, saying they were given less than two weeks to read through about 350 sets of case files. In a statement issued Wednesday after the verdict, the lawyers said the case was handled at a speed that suggested that “this wasn’t a normal legal trial.”
The court in Gaobeidian, a city administered by Baoding’s government, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Calls to the Gaobeidian prosecutors’ office after business hours went unanswered.
Mr. Sun and the other defendants have remained in custody since their detention in November. They couldn’t be reached for comment. The defense team said in their statement that many of the defendants pleaded not guilty during their trial, and the team plans to help their clients file appeals.
“Is it dangerous when private businesses grow big? Is it not dangerous when state-run enterprises grow big?” Mr. Sun told the court on Wednesday, according to a transcript provided by the defense team. “I really hope that Dawu Group’s experience can let President Xi know that the implementation of socialism can work and can withstand examination from everyone.”
In his statement, Mr. Sun sought leniency for his company. “It’d be best for me to admit guilt and wrongdoing, for me to bear the burden,” he was quoted as saying. After the verdict was announced, Mr. Sun told his lawyer that he wants to appeal against his conviction, according to the defense team.
Some of Mr. Sun’s supporters took to social media to voice dismay with the verdict. “His life is full of legend and struggle, and his circumstances are the common circumstances of Chinese private enterprises,” Zhao Xiangsong, a blogger, wrote on his verified Weibo social-media account. “How the rights of private enterprises can truly be protected is a matter that concerns the future and fate of this country.”
A former soldier who became a farmer and entrepreneur, Mr. Sun founded Dawu Group in the 1980s as a pig and chicken-farming business in his home province of Hebei, and grew its operations to include fertilizers, tourism and other interests.
Mr. Sun had previously clashed with the government. In 2003, he was detained and handed a suspended jail sentence for illegal fundraising after speaking up about the difficulties that rural businesses face when borrowing money—a speech at the prestigious Peking University that won him widespread acclaim.
More recently, Mr. Sun has voiced support for human-rights lawyers and criticized local officials over their alleged mishandling of the African swine fever epidemic that has decimated hog farms, as well as what he described as the unfair treatment of his company.
Mr. Sun’s musings on social issues won him respect from liberal-minded intellectuals, while business schools have cited his innovative corporate practices in case studies.
Dawu’s latest predicament appears to be linked to a land dispute between rural residents and a local state-run farm, according to the company’s social-media posts. The spat escalated in August last year when state-farm personnel allegedly attempted to demolish a Dawu office in the middle of the night. Local police intervened after Dawu workers and villagers clashed with state-farm personnel, an incident that left more than 20 people injured, according to Dawu’s accounts of the event.
Since police detained Mr. Sun and other Dawu executives last year, local officials have stepped in to manage the group’s operations, including a hospital and a middle school. The fate of the company was unclear following Wednesday’s verdict.
This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text
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