Pu Zhiqiang
Pu Zhiqiang was arrested in July 2014 after being accused of causing disturbance, illegally accessing information and inciting ethnic hatred and separatismGetty Images

China's human rights lawyer and champion of free speech Pu Zhiqiang has been handed a suspended sentence for inciting ethnic hatred and disturbing public order, meaning he has been set free but will not be able to practise law again.

The 50-year-old was sentenced to three years in prison by Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People's Court, which said the sentence will be suspended during that time pending restrictions. Among them is the possibility to be placed under "residential surveillance", a form of detention in China used to keep dissidents in sites away from the public eye. The lawyer must also not commit crimes during the three-year period or risk being jailed.

The charges were of inciting ethnic hatred and "picking quarrels and provoking trouble", according to state television CCTV. It refers to seven microblog posts Pu he had published online criticising China's ethnic policy in the western region of Xinjiang.

In one post, Pu urged the Communist Party not to threaten Xinjiang as Beijing's colony and act as conqueror and looter. In another, he questioned why there were bloody incidents involving the Muslim minority of Uighurs. He also mocked a veteran delegate to the national congress known for her six decades of never casting a dissenting vote.

Pu, who represented renowned dissidents such as artist Ai Weiwei and activists of the "New Citizen Movement", spent nearly 19 months in detention before his last trial.

Pu told his lawyer Shang Baojun that he was relieved of the suspended verdict. "He said he thanks everyone and he wants to rest," Shang said, recounting a private conversation Pu had with his lawyers after the verdict. "He also said if there's an opportunity, history will deliver a true judgment."

Human rights group Amnesty International welcomed the suspended sentence but condemned the guilty verdict.

"Clearly it is positive that Pu Zhiqiang is unlikely to spend another night in jail, yet that cannot hide the gross injustice against him," said William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International, in a written statement. "He is no criminal and this guilty verdict effectively shackles one of China's bravest champions of human rights from practising law."