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Hu Jia, right, and Zeng Jinyan, left, husband-and-wife activists, pose for a picture at their home in Beijing, China. The Chinese civil rights activist has been sentenced to 3 1/2 years in jail. ((Elizabeth Dalziel/Associated Press))

China is facing international criticism after one of its most famous dissidents was sentenced Thursday to 3½ years in prison on charges of subversion.

Hu Jia, 34, a vocal critic of China's human rights record who has defended AIDS patients, farmers and women forced into sterilization, was found guilty last week of "inciting subversion of state power."

Hu had been under surveillance and house arrest in his Beijing apartment for months before he was arrested in December.

"This is a very serious charge in China. It means you're trying to undermine the authority of the government," CBC's Michel Cormier said.

Hu had become one of China's most famous "cyber dissidents" because he did most of his campaigning on the internet and had a popular blog where he posted corruption charges or cases of human rights violations, Cormier said.

"He became almost a Robin Hood here of human rights," the CBC reporter said.

His lawyer, Li Fangping, said his arrest was based on internet articles he had written and interviews he gave to foreign media that were posted on Boxun.com, a Chinese-language website that is banned in China.

"We're happy that he was not charged with a more severe crime, but three years and six months, we still think is unacceptable," Li said.

Hu has 10 days to appeal the sentence but has not yet decided whether he will, Li said.

U.S., EU call for activist's release

China is cracking down on dissidents because it is more sensitive to criticism in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics and wants to present itself as a harmonious society with no dissension, Cormier said.

But the latest move, along with the recent crackdown on anti-China protesters in Tibet, will only fuel criticism of the country, he said.

"There's obviously a misunderstanding from China on how the rest of the world sees dissent and political discussion in China and how it plans to deal with it leading up to the Olympics," Cormier said.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing expressed disappointment over the verdict on the "specious" charge, saying the world was closely watching China's progress on human rights ahead of August's Summer Games.

"In this Olympic year, we urge China to seize the opportunity to put its best face forward and take steps to improve its record on human rights and religious freedom," Susan Stevenson said.

Amnesty International condemned the sentence, saying it "betrays promises made by Chinese officials that human rights would improve in the run-up to the Olympics."

The European Union is also calling for Hu's immediate release, spokesman William Fingleton said.

"We said clearly before the trial that he should not be detained in the first place, and he should be released," he said.

With files from the Associated Press