A Chinese court today sentenced an activist who investigated the deaths of thousands of schoolchildren in the country's massive 2008 earthquake to five years in jail for inciting subversion of state power, the man's lawyer said.
The United States deplored the sentence handed down to Tan Zuoren by a court in southwestern Sichuan province, saying such convictions were politically motivated and urging China to immediately release the activist and others similarly prosecuted.
Attorney Pu Zhiqiang said Tan was convicted and sentenced today by the Chengdu Intermediate Court. Tan's trial in August had concluded with no ruling, during which police detained and threatened his supporters.
The conviction of inciting subversion of state power was based on Tan's activities in recent years to draw attention to the 1989 student-led demonstrations in Beijing's Tiananmen Square that ended in a deadly military crackdown. China routinely uses such broad and vaguely defined charges of subversion to imprison dissidents, sometimes for years.
But Tan's supporters and human rights groups believe authorities were trying to silence him for his investigation into the collapse of schools in the 7.9-magnitude earthquake that struck in Sichuan province in May 2008, leaving almost 90,000 dead or missing. Tan estimated at least 5,600 students were among the dead, while a figure released by the government last May put the count at 5,335.
Tan, 56, started his investigation in December 2008 and hoped to complete it before the May 12 anniversary of the quake the following year, but he was detained in late March.
"Tan thinks one of the reasons behind this case is that he was leading an investigation into the poorly built schools after the earthquake, which would have embarrassed the local government in Chengdu," Pu said.
Critics allege that shoddy construction, enabled by corruption, caused several schools to collapse while buildings nearby remained intact — a politically sensitive theory that the government has tried to quash, fearing it could undermine the admiration and goodwill it earned after its massive rescue effort.
But activists and parents — many of whom lost their only children in the quake — have repeatedly demanded those responsible for shoddy construction be investigated and punished. Those who've pressed the issue have been detained, harassed and threatened by police and thugs believed to be hired by local officials.
Pu said Tan would appeal the court's verdict, which centered around Tan's questioning of how authorities handled the 1989 Tiananmen protests: an essay he had written about it in 2007 and a blood drive in 2008 he had organized with others in Chengdu to commemorate the anniversary.
Tan had initially also been accused of defaming the government in interviews with foreign news outlets following the quake, but the court dropped that allegation, Pu said.
"The court was very smart. They took out any mention of the earthquake from the verdict because they are afraid of referring to it," Pu said.
An officer from the US Consulate General in Chengdu was at the courthouse for Tan's sentencing but "did not gain entry," according to US Embassy spokeswoman Susan Stevenson.
Chinese police officers tried to block nine Hong Kong journalists from interviewing Pu outside the courthouse, Hong Kong's radio RTHK said.
RTHK said their reporter filmed the scuffle on her mobile phone, but the phone was confiscated and the footage deleted. The reporters were led to a room inside the courthouse and released after the verdict was announced.
Calls to the court rang unanswered today.
The US government was dismayed by the sentence handed down to Tan, Stevenson said, adding he is the latest in a series of activists to be jailed for the peaceful exercise of rights guaranteed them by the Chinese constitution.
"Persecution of individuals for the peaceful expression of political views is inconsistent with internationally recognized norms of human rights. The United States condemns these convictions," Stevenson said. "We call on the Chinese government to immediately release Tan Zuoren and other Chinese citizens who have been imprisoned on baseless, politically motivated charges."
Amnesty International also urged Chinese authorities to release Tan, saying his case highlighted China's use of vague and broad laws to silence dissenting voices.
"The Chinese authorities cannot continue to claim that they are dealing with human rights defenders according to the law when they violate so many of their own legal procedures in cases like this," the organization's Asia-Pacific deputy director, Roseann Rife, said in an e-mailed statement.
In a related case, the same court rejected the appeal of Huang Qi, a prominent dissident who criticized the government's response to the Sichuan earthquake.
Huang had appealed against a three-year jail sentence he was handed in November on the charge of illegally possessing state secrets, his lawyer Mo Shaoping said. Mo said he was notified of the court's decision in a letter he received today and that no hearing had been held.
Huang, founder of a human rights Web site, was detained in June 2008 and had previously served a five-year prison sentence on subversion charges linked to politically sensitive articles posted on his site.
Since his release in 2005, Huang has supported a wide range of causes, including aiding families of those killed in the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and publicizing the complaints of farmers involved in land disputes with authorities.