By John Ruwitch
GUANGZHOU, April 15 (Reuters) - A Chinese court on Tuesday convicted 12 hospital security guards of "disturbing social order" after staging a labour protest last year, sentencing several to light jail terms in what was seen as a test case for labour rights in China.
The guards had been part of a group of more than 100 healthcare workers embroiled in a months-long dispute with the Guangzhou Chinese Medicine University Hospital over labour conditions and compensation.
Cut out of a deal that was eventually struck between the hospital and other workers, the guards on August 19 threatened to jump off the hospital building and were detained by police.
The ruling by the district court in the southern city of Guangzhou, convicting the guards of "gathering a crowd to disturb social order", comes against a backdrop of growing labour activism in China and was calibrated to send a message, said Duan Yi, a labour lawyer and counsel for one of the guards.
"They are sending a signal to society at large which is that as workers protect their rights, if they are even slightly extreme they could receive criminal punishment," he said.
While all 12 were found guilty, three escaped sentence. Six were jailed for eight months, which, including time spent, means they will be freed on Friday, and the remaining three were jailed for nine months and will be free in mid-May.
Han Dongfang, founder of the Hong Kong-based NGO China Labour Bulletin, said relatively light sentences in this case were likely a way for the government to save face as it tries to find new ways to defuse growing labour activism without aggravating blue-collar resentment at heavy sentences.
"It can be (seen as) a compromise. It's like biting something you can't swallow and then spitting it out," he said.
China has long struggled to keep a lid on worker unrest and independent unions are banned. The state-backed All-China Federation of Trade Unions and its affiliates have a reputation for being ineffectual and often siding with management.
China Labour Bulletin, that runs an interactive map on the incidence of strikes in China, recorded 202 incidents in the first quarter this year, up from 154 for the same period last year, including disputes involving multinationals such as IBM , Nokia and one of the world's largest shoemakers, Yue Yuen, in the southern factory town of Dongguan.
The strikes fit a growing pattern of industrial activism that has emerged as China's economy has slowed. A worsening labour shortage has shifted the balance of power in labour relations, while smartphones and social media have helped workers organise and made them more aware than ever of the changing environment, experts say.
Five of the defendants said in court that they would appeal, and four others were considering doing so, Duan said. "We think our clients are not guilty," he said.
Family members of defendants attended the hearing and later several said they were not happy about the verdict.
"There's nothing we can do, but it makes us very uncomfortable," said He Zhengliang, the aunt of He Tao, one of the defendants. "They shouldn't have been convicted of a crime. They didn't hit anyone or kill anyone and they were held in detention for so long. It's not fair."
Duan, a lawyer with extensive experience in labour disputes, said the sentences showed that the court was humane, but the guilty verdicts highlighted the fact that China's leaders were still prone to cracking down on activists.
"The worker movement is something the new government has never come across before, and how they chose to deal with it I'm afraid will take a period of policy adjustment," he said outside the court.
"They have not adopted a new way of answering the future growth of the labour movement." (Reporting by John Ruwitch in Guangzhou; Editing by James Pomfret and Nick Macfie)