China sentences quake activist Tan Zuoren

Tan Zuoren, who had investigated school collapses that killed thousands of children in China’s massive 2008 earthquake, was sentenced to five years.

An undated photo of Chengdu environmentalist Tan Zuoren.

A Chinese activist who publicly blamed shoddy buildings for the deaths of thousands of schoolchildren in a 2008 earthquake was sentenced to five years in jail Tuesday for “incitement to subversion.”

The sentence against Tan Zuoren “is a warning to others,” says Roseann Rife, deputy program director for Amnesty International in Hong Kong. “He was raising issues that directly impact people’s lives, the sort that the authorities fear are going to generate too much support and protest.

“The message,” Ms. Rife adds, “is that civil society can participate, if at all, only under the government’s guidance and with its permission.”

Handing down the sentence, the judge said he was punishing Tan Zuoren for a document he had written about the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square, and published abroad in 2007.

Mr. Tan’s lawyers and supporters, however, pointed out that he was charged only in July 2009, after he had angered local Sichuan Province authorities by drawing attention to poorly built schools and by leading environmental opposition to a planned petrochemical plant.

“The real reasons are the plant and the ‘tofu buildings’ ” that collapsed during the devastating May 12 earthquake, lawyer Xia Lin said. His client would appeal the sentence, he added.

“Tan’s earthquake work was not mentioned in the verdict because of concern he would have too much public support on this issue,” says Rife.

Had organized online campaign

Tan had organized an online campaign to draw up a list of all the schoolchildren who died in the Sichuan earthquake, which in several towns destroyed public buildings such as schools while leaving neighboring structures undamaged. That fed suspicions of faulty, possibly corrupt, public works programs.

Ai Weiwei, the internationally known artist who spearheaded a similar movement to compile a victims’ list, was beaten and detained when he sought to attend Tan’s trial in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, last August.

China is going back to a very bad position where freedom of expression is absolutely forbidden and anyone who does not agree with a single policy is sentenced,” Mr. Ai laments.

Tan’s sentence, which his lawyers said was the heaviest the court could have imposed, came one day after another earthquake activist saw his appeal rejected.

The same court in Chengdu turned down Huang Qi’s appeal against a three-year sentence imposed last November for “possession of state secrets.”

Mr. Huang, a noted human rights activist in Chengdu, was detained in June 2008 after he advised several families considering bringing lawsuits against local officials whom they blamed for the poor building standards that they said had led to their children’s deaths.

No such suits have ever been brought. Local officials in Sichuan have offered monetary compensation to some complaining parents and put heavy pressure on others to intimidate them into abandoning legal avenues, victims’ parents have said.

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