Chinese court hands US football coach 4-year prison sentence

FILE - In this Nov. 25, 2008, file photo, Ball State linebacker Wendell Brown, left, stands with cornerback Trey Buice near the end of an NCAA college football game in Muncie, Ind. A lawyer for former Ball State football player Brown said Thursday, June 28, 2018, that a Chinese court has sentenced the Detroit native to four years' prison for his involvement in a September 2016 bar fight. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings, File)

BEIJING — A Chinese court sentenced former American football player Wendell Brown to four years in prison Thursday for being involved in a bar fight, a punishment his lawyer and an activist called excessive.

Brown, a native of Detroit who played for Ball State University in Indiana, had been teaching American football in southwest China when he was arrested in September 2016 and later charged with intentional assault. He has denied hitting a man at a bar and said he had raised his arms in self-defense after being attacked.

A judge in the city of Chongqing issued the sentence after a brief hearing, Brown's lawyer Wu Junmei said by phone. Brown intends to appeal, she said.

On the night of September 24, 2016, revelers at a nightclub threw a bottle at Brown and an altercation followed, his supporters say. Afterward, a local man accused Brown of seriously injuring his eye, which had to be removed. The man demanded more than $100,000 in compensation or else he would pursue the case in court.

"Four years for a fight in a bar is extremely unjust and excessive," said John Kamm, a San Francisco-based activist who frequently meets with senior Chinese officials to seek clemency for political prisoners in China and had lobbied them on Brown's behalf.

China sometimes deports foreigners following their conviction but it was unclear whether deportation was a possibility for Brown, said Kamm. Brown has already been detained 20 months while awaiting the verdict.

Brown's supporters say the White House, the State Department and Michigan state officials have raised the case with China.

"We are aware of reports that Mr. Brown has been sentenced to four years," a spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing said Thursday. "The Department of State takes seriously its duty to assist U.S. citizens abroad. We continue to closely follow his case."

Brown, 31, played linebacker for Ball State between 2004 and 2008 and went on to play in the Canadian Football League before moving to China to coach.

Similar disputes are often settled out-of-court in China — where the conviction rate is 99 percent — but Brown did not reach a settlement with the plaintiff and pleaded not guilty.

"I still don't understand: he is guilty of what?" Brown's mother, Antoinette, said by phone after the verdict. "It was all about the money. It was a clear shakedown. It's unfair justice."

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This story has been corrected to show the year of Brown's Ball State playing career.

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