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.

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