Guilty: China's verdict on the man who helped quake victims

Beijing responds to US call for greater civil liberties with sentence for activist who criticised official response to disaster

A Chinese dissident was jailed for three years yesterday for trying to help victims of last year's earthquake in Sichuan province.

Huang Qi was sentenced less than a week after the US President Barack Obama urged China to grant its citizens greater human rights. The court ruling was interpreted as a clear sign that Beijing was unwilling to cede any ground on civil liberties.

Mr Huang, a 46-year-old political activist and campaigner, had asked awkward questions on behalf of parents who believed their children would have survived if their shoddily-built schools had not collapsed when the huge tremor struck Sichuan province in May 2008, killing 90,000 people.

He posted articles on his website criticising the government's response to the disaster, and also spoke to foreign journalists about the situation, which clearly annoyed the Chinese authorities. Less than a month after the earthquake he was arrested while dining in a restaurant.

Yesterday, after a 10-minute court hearing in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, Mr Huang was handed a jail term after being convicted of possessing state secrets, although no details of the charges were given.

His wife Zeng Li told Reuters news agency: "They still won't say what the specific charge is, not even at the verdict. They just spoke of documents related to a certain matter. I think it was revenge for the earthquake and his other work. But the court would not even give me a copy of the verdict."

According to the Chinese government, more than 5,000 children were killed in the Sichuan quake. Mr Huang was campaigning on behalf of just five of them who died when their primary schools collapsed and whose families were attempting to bring legal action against the local authorities.

The defendant was only allowed to meet his lawyer for the first time on 23 September 2008, more than 100 days after his arrest. Suspects held on state secrets charges are regularly denied access to a lawyer or to their families, and witnesses are not allowed to testify on their behalf.

During the trial at Wuhou District People's Court in Chengdu, Ms Li was not allowed to see her husband and his supporters were banned from the proceedings. Several women who asked to enter the court to hear the sentence were beaten and injured.

Sam Zarifi, the Asia-Pacific director for the human rights group Amnesty International, condemned yesterday's verdict. "The Chinese government is penalising someone who is trying to help the victims of the Sichuan earthquake," he said. "Huang Qi should be treated as a model citizen committed to the rule of law, but instead he has fallen victim to China's vague state secrets legislation."

Amnesty said it believed Mr Huang was sentenced because two city government documents were found in his home. His three-year sentence was the maximum allowed for possessing state secrets. "He should never have been detained in the first place and should be released immediately," Mr Zarifi said.

Parents who have taken the government to task over the schools issue have also been harassed and arrested. Reacting to news of Mr Huang's sentence, a mother whose 14-year-old son died when a high school collapsed in the city of Beichuan told The New York Times: "This is beyond my words."

Others trying to help the bereaved of Sichuan have also suffered abuse or oppression. In August, one of China's leading artists, Ai Weiwei – who helped to design the "birds' nest" Olympic stadium in Beijing – was beaten by police when he tried to testify at the trial of Tan Zuoren, another activist who investigated the collapse of schools during the earthquake. Mr Ai suffered a traumatic brain injury and had to have surgery in Germany. Being charged under China's subversion or state secrecy laws invariably means a conviction, because courts are unlikely to try anyone that prosecutors and Communist Party officials have not already decided is guilty. Nonetheless, Mr Huang's laywer said his client planned to appeal against his conviction.

Mr Huang is the second high-profile dissident to face trial since Mr Obama gave a lecture on human rights during a visit to Beijing last week. Zhou Yongjun, a student leader of China's 1989 pro-democracy movement, was also tried in Sichuan province on fraud charges that his relatives believe were trumped up.

Huang Qi: Political activist

*The 46-year-old computer engineer-turned human rights activist has been a constant thorn in the side of the Communist Party. He runs his own Tianwang Human Rights Centre and a website which is criticial of party efforts to muzzle dissent in China. He has also been involved in trying to push for representation for farmers who have lost their farms in land grabs.

*Yesterday's prison sentence was not Mr Huang's first. In 2003, he was given five years for "inciting subversion" after hosting an online discussion about the protests in Tiananmen Square in 2000. The "evidence" against him included reference to an Amnesty document about the crackdown, which had been posted on his website.

*Mr Huang was released in 2005, and resumed his human rights brief, until his work with the bereaved families from the Sichuan earthquake landed him in fresh trouble with the authorities.

*Now, his family fears that his health is rapidly deteriorating and he is not receiving adequate medical treatment. According to one of his lawyers, Mo Shaoping, he has been diagnosed with two tumours, one in his stomach and another in his chest.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Support Analyst

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading indepen...

Recruitment Genius: Linux Systems Administrator

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Systems Administrator is requ...

Recruitment Genius: ICT Infrastructure Manager

£27000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Edinburgh city centre Scho...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250...

Day In a Page

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Attwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
10 best waterproof mascaras

Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'