A prominent Chinese billionaire has been sentenced to 18 years in prison in China on Wednesday, July 28, the latest in a series of sentences handed down to outspoken business leaders.

Billionaire Sun Dawu runs one of the country’s largest private agricultural businesses in the northern province of Hebei, China.

His Hebei Dawu Agricultural and Animal Husbandry Group has farming businesses in China and employs over 9,000 people in food processing, pet food manufacture, and other industries.

Dawu is also well-known for his forthright criticism of China’s ruling Communist Party on human rights and other politically sensitive issues, per the BBC

The 67-year-old billionaire had been detained since March. According to an official statement posted by the court, he had been charged with “gathering a crowd to storm state institutions, obstructing public service, picking quarrels and provoking troubles, disrupting production and operation, conducting coercive trade, illegal mining, illegal occupation of agricultural land, illegal absorption of public deposits,” CNN reported.

Following the verdict, Dawu would be jailed for 18 years and fined 3.11 million yuan ($480,000).

He was among the very few people to overtly accuse the government of covering up an African swine flu outbreak in 2019, which damaged his farms and later decimated most of the country’s business. 

In May 2019, Sun told CNN that local officials finally reevaluated his pigs for the disease after he began posting images of the dead animals online.

There have also been claims in local media that Sun was involved in a land dispute with a local government-owned farm. 

Reuters revealed that Dawu said dozens of the company’s employees were injured in a confrontation with police in 2020 after attempting to stop state agricultural laborers from demolishing one of its buildings.

The state seized control over Dawu Group’s operations last year, and the majority of the group’s executives are now imprisoned.

In November, officials detained more than a dozen of Dawu’s relatives and employees, placing them under a form of secret house detention for more than five months until they were formally prosecuted, said NPR.

“There were no windows in the designated residential surveillance area and the lights were on 24 hours a day, making it impossible to distinguish between day and night,” said Jin Fengyu, Dawu Group’s deputy director, describing the place they were kept in. “A camera watched me and because of the lack of privacy, I never once could bathe.”

“The way they’re investigating me now is making those close to us suffer and those who hate us rejoice. I wish to take the charges upon myself, even if they’re severe, in exchange for the release of others. We are people who have made contributions to society,” Dawu said in a pre-trial hearing.

Dawu faced a different sentence in 2003 for “illegal fundraising.” Authorities accused the Dawu Group of fraudulently borrowing $104 billion from employees and families. The billionaire refuted the accusation, and the case was quashed amid an outcry of public and activist support. 

Beijing has been trying to corral the country’s free-wheeling entrepreneurs, wanting private companies to be “politically sensible people” who would stick by the Chinese Communist Party’s ruling, the party said in September last year, as CNN noted.

In a statement issued on July 14 by the advocacy group Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), they accused the legal challenges against Dawu as “a blatant attempt to punish Sun for his support of human rights.”

“Sun Dawu has made extraordinary contributions to improving the life of Chinese citizens living in rural China. His support of rights defenders was an extension of his concern for the welfare of people on the margins of the Chinese economy,” said Ramona Li, senior researcher and advocate for CHRD.