Press freedom group Reporters Without Borders condemned China's conviction of a political dissident Friday, suggesting that officials "sneakily" handed down a guilty verdict on Christmas Day to minimize attention from the West.

“It is a disgrace that Liu Xiaobo is going to spend the next eleven years in prison when all he did was defend free expression and participate in a debate about his country’s future with many other Chinese intellectuals,” the non-profit group said in a statement. “It is also disgraceful that such a sentence was announced on Christmas Day.”

Liu was tried for "inciting subversion of state power." He was detained a year ago after co-authoring Charter 08, a bold manifesto calling for the reform of China's one-party communist system and the protection of human rights. Charter 08: China intellectuals' call for reform

Rights groups lashed out at what they called a toughening of the political climate in China given the heavy jail term for Liu, 53, a writer who was previously jailed over the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy protests.

His case has generated concern in the West over China's human rights record, especially in the United States, which urged Beijing to "respect the rights of all Chinese citizens to peacefully express their political views".

"We continue to call on the government of China to release him immediately," US embassy official Gregory May told reporters outside the courthouse following sentencing.

"Persecution of individuals for the peaceful expression of political views is inconsistent with internationally recognised norms of human rights," May said.

The dissident's wife, Liu Xia -- who was able to see her husband for the first time since March -- told AFP that he had decided to appeal the verdict.

A group of Western diplomats including May, who were denied access to Wednesday's proceedings, tried to attend Friday's hearing but were again refused, according to an AFP reporter at the courthouse.

In a brief dispatch, the state Xinhua news agency reported the sentence but only on its English-language service, saying the court had "strictly followed the legal procedures in this case and fully protected Liu's litigation rights".

Liu's conviction and sentence were strongly condemned by the European Union's presidency and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

In Brussels, the EU presidency, currently held by Sweden, condemned the decision to jail Liu as "disproportionate," saying it raised concerns about freedom of speech and right to a fair trial in China.

"The Presidency of the European Union is deeply concerned by the disproportionate sentence against the prominent human rights defender Liu Xiaobo," its statement said.

In Hong Kong, a group of around 50 people protested against the sentence. Convictions of key Chinese dissidents since 1989

Amnesty International expressed concern for the other signatories of Charter 08. According to China Human Rights Defenders, an activist network, more than 10,000 people have signed the petition.

The subversion charge -- which one of Liu's lawyers, Shang Baojun, said also related to articles posted on the Internet -- is routinely brought against those who voice opposition to China's ruling Communist Party.

Rights activists say China pushes cases such Liu's through the courts during the Western holiday season in a bid to attract less global attention.

-- With Agence France-Presse