BEIJING (Reuters) - A Chinese activist who sought to document shoddy construction that contributed to deaths in China’s devastating 2008 earthquake has been sentenced to five years in prison for subversion, his lawyer said on Tuesday.
Tan Zuoren was formally accused of inciting subversion of state power in emailed comments about the bloody crackdown on June 4, 1989, on pro-democracy demonstrators around Tiananmen Square.
But Tan’s supporters and Amnesty International say he was detained because he planned to issue an independent report on the collapse of school buildings during the Sichuan earthquake, in which more than 80,000 people died.
His trial in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, was adjourned without a verdict in August last year.
He plans to appeal, lawyer Pu Zhiqiang told Reuters, adding that the sentence Tan received was the maximum possible.
“The Sichuan government action isn’t in line with the central government’s downplaying of the June 4 incident,” Pu said. The Chinese government usually avoids all mention of the crackdown in public, hoping to effectively airbrush the incident out of official history.
Speaking outside the courthouse in Chengdu, Tan’s wife told reporters the trial had been unjust and “completely absurd.”
Tan’s earthquake activism was not included in the case, Pu said, adding that he was the first person in a decade to be sentenced for actions related to the June 4 crackdown.
“I think this is a very important case for China, more important than that of Liu Xiaobo,” said Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who also campaigned for earthquake victims, referring to a Chinese dissident jailed in December for 11 years for online essays calling for civil rights and multi-party elections.
“It shows the Chinese legal system has taken a big step backwards. Tan’s ‘crime’ was entirely one of speech, of conscience.”
Ai, who compiled a list of the children who died in the quake, was roughed up when he travelled to Chengdu to attend the August trial. In another reminder of official sensitivities, several Hong Kong reporters covering the trial in Chengdu were manhandled by police and told to leave.
One reporter who filmed the standoff on her mobile phone had it snatched away, Hong Kong’s Cable Television reported with footage of the incident.
Last August, a Hong Kong television crew was prevented from attending the trial and had their hotel room searched under the pretext that they were hiding drugs.
China’s official statistics show that 5,335 children died in the quake, which killed about 80,000 people and left 5 million homeless. In many towns, schools collapsed, burying the children inside, while surrounding residential buildings stayed standing.
Tan’s August trial was held a week after another earthquake activist, Huang Qi, was tried on state secrets charges in Chengdu. Huang was sentanced to three years in jail in November.
Court officials refused to confirm the verdict when contacted on Tuesday.
Additional reporting by Yu Le and James Pomfret; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani