BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese rights activist Wang Lihong was sentenced to nine months in jail on Friday in a case that has drawn condemnation from critics who see her as a victim of the Communist Party's crackdown on Internet-spread dissent.

Wang was found guilty of "stirring up trouble" based on a protest in 2010, when she demonstrated outside a court in eastern China's Fujian province, where three people stood trial for maligning an official.

That initial hearing drew protesters who said Wang was a victim of injustice by officials seeking to stifle dissent, though heavy security outside the verdict hearing at a local court in northwest Beijing kept the number of supporters down.

Wang was detained March this year, when the Chinese government was pursuing a drive to detain and silence dissidents, persistent protesters and human rights lawyers who wary security officials feared could fan the kind of popular challenge to party rule that toppled governments across the Arab world.

Wang's lawyer, Liu Xiaoyuan, said the sentence was "relatively light" compared the maximum of five years' jail that the court could have meted out.

Liu said that if Wang loses her appeal, she is due to be released in December, taking into account her time already spent in detention since March.

"I think this is a heavy sentence," Wang's son, Qi Jianxiang, told reporters. "She should never have been sentenced at all."

Wang told the judges that they should know she is innocent, said Qi.

"My mother also said to say hello to the Internet (supporters)," Qi added.

The sentence was a blow to China's rights movement, he said.

"My mother wasn't campaigning for rights for her own interest but for the sake of others, and now she's been sentenced for it."

Outside the courthouse, supporters of Wang denounced the sentence, a couple of them weeping.

European diplomats who came for the hearing said they were not allowed in, and one European Union attache said they were "disappointed." But the diplomats did not directly comment on the verdict.

Wang's supporters have included the prominent Chinese activist-artist Ai Weiwei, whose own 81-day secretive detention prompted an international outcry. Last month, Ai used his Twitter account to urge people to pay attention to her case.

(Reporting by Chris Buckley; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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