Hong Kong's legislators are rarely united. Yesterday, they found one voice. Lawmakers from across the political spectrum voiced support for jailed mainland activist Zhao Lianhai , who organised a parents' group to seek justice for children affected by melamine-tainted milk on the mainland. Their appeal for justice came two days ahead of a deadline for Zhao to lodge a court appeal. But whether he could file his appeal documents remained uncertain, as his lawyer was barred from meeting him. No official from the Hong Kong government was present during a debate in the Legislative Council during which lawmakers from both the Beijing-loyalist and pan-democracy camps expressed sympathy for Zhao. Zhao was last week jailed for 21/2years for 'provoking quarrels and making trouble' after he organised a group to seek compensation for families affected. 'In a civilised era, we cannot tolerate the fact that a plaintiff is made a defendant, and then a prisoner,' Association for Democracy and People's Livelihood lawmaker Frederick Fung Kin-kee, who initiated the debate, said. Pan-democrats placed photographs of Zhao and his family on their desks as they debated the topic. Many linked the case to the imprisonment of democracy advocate and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and Sichuan earthquake activist Tan Zuoren. They said their suppression reflected badly on Beijing's civil rights record. Wong Kwok-kin, vice-president of the pro-Beijing Federation of Trade Unions said: 'We hope Mr Zhao Lianhai will be released as soon as possible ... but under the principle of 'one country, two systems', Legco is a part of the Hong Kong political structure. So we have decided not to participate in this adjournment debate.' He said outside the chamber that he was afraid the matter would backfire if Hong Kong lawmakers campaigned for Zhao's release in too high-profile a manner. Twenty-five lawmakers - including 23 pan-democrats and independents Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee and Dr Leung Ka-lau - jointly signed a letter to the Supreme People's Court calling for the activist's release. 'We demand respect for, and protection of, citizens' constitutional rights, and the immediate release of Zhao Lianhai,' the letter said. Many in the pro-Beijing camp declined to sign the petition. 'There could be repercussions if we over-politicise the case ... co-signing a letter is a political action,' said Dr Priscilla Leung Mei-fun, who on Tuesday co-signed another letter with her two Professional Forum colleagues to the court urging a retrial. The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong said it would express its view on the case through other channels. The calls from local lawmakers followed a joint petition by 28 Hong Kong deputies to the National People's Congress, who wrote to the court on Monday urging a more lenient judgment on the case. In Beijing, Zhao's lawyer, Li Fangping , said the joint letter from Hong Kong was positive for his client. 'They are NPC members ... I believe their expression will draw the attention of relevant departments.' Li said he prepared appeal documents for Zhao but was not able to reach his client so he could sign them. He has made three attempts since the sentence was handed down a week ago. 'This is crucial ... if we fail to meet the deadline of applying for an appeal, I won't have 100 per cent confidence.'