China's quake cover-up

Families seeking justice for child victims are being intimidated by the state, alleges Amnesty

Almost one year on from the Sichuan earthquake, Amnesty International has called on the Chinese government to stop intimidating parents and relatives of the child victims, who face harassment and arrest as they seek justice for the dead and injured.

The timing of the quake on 12 May 2008 was particularly harsh for the province's children – it struck at 2.28pm, when most students were in class. Many of the younger pupils were having a nap before resuming lessons.

The number of children who perished has never been released officially, but some estimates put it at around 10,000 – out of a death toll of 80,000. More than 8,000 families lost their only child in the disaster, with angry parents blaming shoddy building – or "tofu construction" – for their loss.

Despite an initial openness in allowing foreign media to witness the aftermath of the quake, when public anger in China rose over badly built schoolhouses, the shutdown was swift and accusations of corruption were met with a stony silence.

The Amnesty report, entitled "Justice Denied: Harassment of Sichuan earthquake survivors and activists", outlines how officials in the province detained parents and relatives for up to three weeks for simply trying to get anwers about how their children died. Some were held repeatedly and the youngest detainee was only eight years old. "By unlawfully locking up parents of children who died, the government is creating more misery for people who have said in some cases they lost everything in the Sichuan earthquake," said Roseann Rife, Amnesty's Asia-Pacific Deputy Programme Director. "The Chinese government must stop harassing survivors who are trying to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives."

At one of the worst-affected schools, Juyuan Middle School in Dujiangyan, the classroom building collapsed, but nearby apartments and offices remained standing. Hundreds of schoolchildren died. Within weeks, it was ringed with a high security fence and patrolled by public security officers, who were quick to stop any efforts to film or report near the area. Locals were unwilling to talk, fearful of retribution.

Parents bringing signed petitions to local court offices were often harassed and jailed. Some outsiders who accompanied the victims' families were ejected from the court buildings, before police raided their vehicles and confiscated equipment that might contain evidence.

The Amnesty report details how parents have been placed under surveillance to stop them from pursuing their cases and some activists who offered assistance to families are facing politically motivated trials on charges of endangering state security, a charge normally levelled at dissidents. One such activist is Huang Qi, who was held incommunicado for 100 days before being allowed to meet a lawyer. Detained since September last year, his trial has been postponed and he remains locked up without access to his family.

The report also draws attention to a directive issued by the provincial court in Sichuan, which bans all lower courts from accepting cases deemed sensitive. The government introduced measures to try to contain any dissent arising from the aftermath of the earthquake. Now, as China's economy slows, the government is even more keen to keep a lid on any contentious issues which it feels might lead to social unrest. Beijing has also accused foreign governments and human rights groups of meddling in its internal affairs.

Parents were given a lump sum and 100 yuan each (£11) per month in supplementary benefits and sent messages of support to reduce the political fallout over shabby building standards and poor supervision of school construction.

The family planning commission in Chengdu City set up a special programme to support those parents whose only child was killed or badly injured in the quake.

But many of the parents are looking for something more.

"I want to seek justice for the dead students," said a father quoted in the Amnesty report. He lost a 15-year-old at Beichuan Middle School. "Corruption is rampant in China," he added. "The children were still so innocent and suddenly they passed away.

"Some of their bodies are still buried under the rubble and we will never find them. That's why it is so heartbreaking for many parents.

"Except the school building, other buildings in Beichuan county did not collapse during the earthquake. What kind of earthquake was this?"

My fight for justice: One father's tale

The middle-aged father cannot be identified because he is worried about the consequences, worried about penalties worse than arrest.

His daughter died at Juyuan Middle School in Dujiangyan, when the earthquake hit Sichuan last May.

She was 18 but was still at the Middle School, in a class with mostly younger students. She had had to delay her studies at various intervals because her parents were poor and needed her to stay and work the land.

"The government has said that we can have a second child, and a lot of people in the village are pregnant, but many are having miscarriages," her grieving father said.

"I would say about 60 per cent are having miscarriages. My wife had a miscarriage after three months, some people are losing the baby after five months. Our children were teenagers, we are too old to become parents again."

Last week he came to Beijing to deliver a petition to the office of the State Council, or China's cabinet. He said he had already received several threatening phone calls. The callers don't say who they are, but their message is clear: leave well alone if you know what's good for you.

But the Sichuan father said he was ready to be picked up by police if that was what it took to get justice for his dead daughter.

"I received 80,000 yuan (£8,500) in compensation. But I want a thorough investigation," he said. "I don't care if they arrest me. Let them arrest me. I've lost my child, I don't care what they do.

"The central government has good policies, but they don't work because of the local government. The local government takes our land without permission and they do all kinds of bad things. So how can we expect them to look after us after something like this?" he said.

"We are taking our message to the State Council, because they will understand. What is the address of the State Council, please? I don't know it."

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