Jail term confirmed for quake activist

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 June, 2010, 12:00am

A court upheld a five-year prison sentence yesterday for activist Tan Zuoren, who investigated the deaths of thousands of children in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

The decision drew criticism from his lawyer, supporters and international rights groups. They say the rejection of his appeal highlights the government's determination to suppress independent investigations into why so many schools collapsed during the quake, which took more than 88,000 lives.

Tan blamed shoddy construction for the children's deaths - an allegation denied by the government.

A statement from Sichuan Higher People's Court was read out in a 10-minute session at the Chengdu Intermediate People's Court, ruling that the appeal of Tan - who was convicted of 'inciting subversion of state power' in February - would not be overturned.

Neither Tan nor his lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang, were allowed to speak. The higher court had earlier rejected Pu's request for a retrial.

Tan was implicated for having taken part in a commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown by donating blood on June 4, 2008, and slandering the government's handling of the incident by posting a commemorative essay online in 2007.

The written verdict reiterated that Tan's essay 'wantonly distorted, smeared and discredited the government's lawful handling of the June 4 incident' and incited people to take a confrontational stance towards the government.

But his supporters believe the real reason Tan was implicated was his independent investigation into the collapse of school buildings. They pointed out he had been charged only last year after antagonising the authorities by blaming shoddy building for the deaths. The central government said 5,335 schoolchildren died in the quake - a number that many say is far too low.

The Communist Party-controlled judiciary's refusal to overturn Tan's jail terms came as no surprise, although his lawyer still condemned the decision.

'I think it is ridiculous. It is the shame of the Chinese judiciary,' Pu told the South China Morning Post. 'Tan has only recorded what he has seen and heard ... People have the right to write what they think.

'This kind of judgment is very bad for ... the development of the rule of law in China and the respect and protection of human rights.'

Tan's wife, Wang Qinghua, was allowed in the courtroom but their two daughters were not. Wang said her 24-year-old daughter was detained by police for about 20 minutes because she tried to use a video camera outside the court. Wang said she and her husband exchanged smiles from a distance but were not allowed to speak.

Dozens of Tan's supporters turned up outside the courthouse in Chengdu to show their solidarity while scores of plain-clothes police were standing by.

In Hong Kong, about 40 protesters marched to the central government's liaison office to demand Tan's immediate release.

International human rights bodies condemned the rejection of Tan's appeal as a political move intended to silence whistle-blowers.

'The Chinese constitution guarantees citizens' rights to freedom of expression, but the government and its politicised judiciary appear to have again denied that right to an outspoken civil society activist,' said Phelim Kine, a researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Catherine Baber, Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific deputy director, said: 'Continuing prosecutions of human rights defenders such as Tan Zuoren clearly demonstrates the gap between promises and practice on freedom of speech in China.'