Friends, family, and supporters of Pastor Zhang Shaojie are speaking out against his 12-year prison sentence for fraud and "gathering a crowd to disrupt public order." They say the conviction and sentence were a "miscarriage of justice."
The Christian pastor was sentenced on July 4 after being detained by Chinese police on November 17. A family member, Zhang Cuijuan, and another pastor, Chao Junling, were also detained and are awaiting sentencing.
Pastor Zhang had been in a dispute with the Nanle County government since October over land that was allegedly supposed to be allocated to Zhang's church for a new building. Zhang's church is approved by the government.
The Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) said that Zhang's arrest on fraud and public disturbance charges was in retaliation for his conflict with the county.
"Police did not appear to have a probable cause for Zhang's initial detention, as evidenced by the differences in the nature of the original and newer charges, and the fact that the government failed to produce records of any earlier investigations," a statement from CHRD read.
Zhang's attorney, Zhang Xinyun, said the charges are baseless and some of the evidence contradictory.
"They have sentenced an innocent person," he told Radio Free Asia (RFA). "Not only is this a step backwards for justice in China, but it will also have a chilling effect on Protestant worshipers and the general public."
Zhang Yunyun, daughter of Zhang Shaojie, said that the police kept her father's congregants from attending the sentencing.
"A lot of the congregation had planned to go to the courtroom, but a lot of [them] were confined to their homes by plainclothes police," she told RFA.
"The majority of our church workers and leaders were forced to stay home, and one preacher was taken away by them."
In addition to the lengthy sentence, Zhang was ordered to pay 100,000 yuan, or about $16,000 U.S. dollars. The severe sentence is evidence that the government is persecuting the pastor, his attorney said.
"This isn't a question of whether the sentence was too heavy; it's a miscarriage of justice," he said. "This judgment is clearly wrong."
The CHRD agreed that Zhang was targeted because of his faith.
"The harsh sentence reflects that Chinese authorities are expanding harassment and persecution usually aimed at underground house churches by going after officially sanctioned religious institutions," they wrote.
Zhang's family plans to file an appeal.
Across China, the government is ordering the demolition of church buildings and crosses as "illegal constructions."
International Christian Concern (ICC) reported that over 360 churches have been targeted, and the destruction is often done without any notice or documentation. Christian organizations told Al Jazeera on Monday that they will defend their churches from the targeted attacks.