China apologises for move to ban legal help for rail crash families

 

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The Independent Online

The Chinese authorities were yesterday forced to apologise for trying to stop lawyers representing the families of victims ofthe bullet train crash that left 40 people dead.

In the latest clumsy effort to stifle public anger over the disaster, the government in Wenzhou issued a notice saying local law firms "shouldn't unauthorisedly respond and handle the cases" because the accident was "a major sensitive issue concerning social stability", the Xinhua news agency reported.

The climbdown came as public outrage continued to grow at Beijing's handling of the crash, which also left 200 injured when one bullet train rammed into another near Wenzhou on July 23.

Authorities imposed a media ban on coverage of the crash, forcing papers to drop planned stories, only one day after Premier Wen Jiabao visited Wenzhou and pledged transparency and opennessas well as promising to punish those responsible.

The Sunday Morning Post in Hong Kong reported that propaganda authorities had imposed censorship banning all coverage of the crash "except positive news or information released by the authorities".

The media has been remarkably frank in its coverage, even after earlier gags on media commentary issued last week. The Communist Party's main newspaper, the People's Daily, said last week in an editorial that China "needs development, but does not need blood-smeared GDP".

So far, 15 families of the crash victims have agreed to accept government compensation, Xinhua reported, after payment was nearly doubled to 915,000 yuan (£87,000).

Family members and media commentators complained that an original offer of 500,000 yuan was too low. The multi-billion pound high-speed rail project was meant to be a powerful symbol of China's technological progress, but instead it has turned into a nightmare for the ruling Communist Party as commentators and the general public use the crash to vent their frustrations about single-party rule.

Despite muzzles on commentary online – China has the world's largest internet community, 485 million people – the reaction has been fierce, and many of the blog entries have been addressed directly to the government.

There were angry internet postings after it was discovered that authorities had buried some of the wreckage rather than moving it for investigation. While the government said it was to help with the rescue effort, online users suspected a cover-up.

"This accident was an accident, but then you ordered the burial of part of the train, you refused to publish footage of inside the train and you stop journalists getting close. Is this the first time the government has chosen to bury the evidence?" Denaxuta wrote on Tianya.cn.

One online commentator, Zhuibianliangxi, asked how come all the details about the Norway massacre thousands of miles away were available but there was such a confused picture of the Wenzhou disaster. "We could interview the mayor and citizens in Norway, but we couldn't even reach the village near to where the accident happened," wrote Zhuibianliangxi.

On Sina.com's popular microblogging site, Weibo, there has been a torrent of outrage about the way the crash has been handled.

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