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China sentences earthquake activist to 5 years in prison

He found deaths in schools tied to poor construction

By Gillian Wong
Associated Press / February 10, 2010

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BEIJING - A Chinese activist who investigated the deaths of thousands of children crushed in their schools during the Sichuan earthquake was sentenced yesterday to five years in prison, underscoring the government’s determination to suppress questions about why the buildings fell.

Many have asked whether poor construction was responsible for the staggering number of children killed in the May 2008 temblor, which took 90,000 lives. Parents have protested frequently, and authorities have reacted severely to such demonstrations - jailing, harassing, and threatening participants.

The United States quickly condemned yesterday’s conviction of Tan Zuoren, and a human rights activist said the case was the latest example of how China uses its vague subversion laws to silence dissent.

Tan, 56, was convicted of inciting subversion of state power and handed the maximum sentence of five years in prison by the Chengdu Intermediate Court in southwestern China’s Sichuan Province, his lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang, said.

Tan and others have raised the possibility that shoddy construction, possibly fostered by corrupt officials who failed to enforce building codes, caused some schools to collapse in the quake while buildings nearby remained intact.

The government was widely praised for its response to the quake, which occurred just months before it was set to host the Olympic Games in Beijing, a time of intense scrutiny from the outside world. Authorities were eager to keep the focus on their massive rescue and relocation efforts and moved quickly to quash the politically sensitive theory.

Since then, they have kept up their campaign to silence those who pressed the issue - many of whom are parents who lost their only children.

For months after the May 12 temblor, China refused to provide an estimate of how many children had been killed in schools, prompting Tan to start his own investigation in December of that year.

Tan hoped to have a figure before the first anniversary of the quake but was detained in March 2009. His initial estimate was that at least 5,600 students were among the dead.

The government announced its own figure in May, saying 5,335 students were believed to have died in classrooms.

The court’s ruling against Tan makes no mention of his quake research, but his supporters and human rights groups say they believe he was targeted because of the project.

The court found Tan guilty of inciting subversion for drawing attention to the deadly 1989 military crackdown on prodemocracy demonstrations in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, Pu said. The ruling cited an essay Tan wrote in 2007 about the protests and a 2008 blood drive he helped organized to commemorate the demonstrations.

“The Chinese government doesn’t seem to understand that criticism is not the same thing as incitement and that criticism of individual officials or government agencies is not the same thing as calling for the overthrow of the government,’’ said Joshua Rosenzweig, research manager for the Dui Hua Foundation, a US-based organization.

Tan was brought to trial in August and pleaded not guilty in a three-hour session. Police detained and threatened supporters who came to Chengdu to witness the proceedings.

The case was adjourned with no ruling until yesterday.

Chinese police officers blocked nine Hong Kong journalists from interviewing Pu outside the courthouse, Hong Kong’s radio RTHK said.

The reporters were led to a room inside the courthouse and released after the verdict was announced.