Chinese baby formula advocate sentenced to 2 1/2 years in jail for incitement
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|Wed, 11-10-2010 - 9:35am|
:smileymad: Sending this man to prison is unfair in so many ways. He's a hero IMO.
BEIJING - A Beijing court handed down a 2 1/2-year prison sentence Wednesday to Zhao Lianhai, who became an activist after his son suffered kidney problems from contaminated baby formula.
Zhao was convicted of inciting public disorder because he set up a Web site to help other parents with sick children share information and demand compensation.
Zhao's attorneys said they considered the sentence particularly harsh. They and others said the sentence seemed to indicate that China's ruling Communist Party remains intolerant of any critics - including AIDS activists, environmentalists or others well outside of politics - and will be particularly tough on those who use the Internet to organize others around a cause.
The baby formula scandal, which swept the country in 2008, was the worst in a series of tainted food cases in China, causing the deaths of at least six infants and leaving 300,000 seriously ill. The baby formula and milk had been contaminated with melamine, an industrial plastic, to make it bulkier - which increased profits for the manufacturer. But the melamine also can cause kidney stones and kidney disease in children and infants.
China responded to the scandal by prosecuting officials of the Sanlu dairy company, some local government workers and farmers involved in the contamination. Several were sentenced to lengthy prison terms, and three people were executed. But families said the government's response and compensation were inadequate, and Zhao emerged as their champion.
Zhao was working for an advertising agency when his son, Zhao Pengrui, now 5, fell ill from the tainted baby milk, becoming one of the so-called "kidney stone babies." Zhao set up a Web site to help families with infected children share information, and to press the government to be more accountable.
The concerned father became the public face for thousands of parents affected by the scandal. He organized meetings, gave media interviews and held silent protests in front of a dairy factory and court - all of which prosecutors said they considered attempts to incite the public.
Zhao was arrested in November 2009 and has been in jail awaiting his conviction and sentencing for the past year. On Wednesday, his family members went to the Beijing court to learn of his sentence. About 20 supporters, who had heard the news of the pending verdict on Twitter, gathered outside, some wearing yellow ribbons.
About 8:50 p.m., Zhao's wife and mother came out of the courthouse, eyes brimming. His wife squatted and cried, "It's unfair!"
Zhao's supporters shouted, "It's the government that committed a crime for not protecting our rights and our health," and "Zhao Lianhai is a hero!"
One of Zhao's attorneys, Peng Jian, said that in the courtroom, when the sentence was read, Zhao shouted continuously, "I'm innocent, the verdict is unjust!" and "I will go on a hunger strike until I'm set free again." He then began ripping off his prison clothes and throwing them on the floor until he was carried away by police.
Peng said Zhao's attorneys were not able to speak or call any witnesses. "I personally feel angry and indignant," Peng said. "My expectation was one year at the most. Such a verdict has no factual or legal basis." He said the court verdict and sentence "has trampled on civil rights and ignored public opinion."
Another of Zhao's attorneys, Li Fangping, said the sentence was largely political, meant as "a kind of suppression and deterrence" to the family members affected by the tainted milk scandal who were exercising a "normal, rational and legitimate" right to petition the government. "The impact on society will be great," he said.
The lawyers said they plan to appeal the verdict.
Zhou Xiong, a migrant worker whose 3-year-old son still suffers from kidney disease because of the tainted milk, was one of those who came to the Beijing courthouse to show support. He said he borrowed money to get there, just as he has borrowed heavily to pay for his son's treatment because the government's compensation was far too little. He wants the government to provide free lifetime medical care for his son.
"I respect Zhao Lianhai because he has done so much for us," Zhou said. "I feel angry, helpless and hopeless. Even a capable and eloquent man like Zhao Lianhai has been put in jail. What hope is left for people like us?"
The verdict comes at a sensitive time in China, with the country's Communist rulers appearing intent on squashing any form of public dissent or opposition. The sensitivity was heightened here last month when a jailed writer and dissident, Liu Xiaobo, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his advocacy of more political freedoms.
Since the prize was announced, several lawyers and activists, including Liu's wife, have been placed under house arrest and, in some cases subjected to strict surveillance, advocates say. Several activists have disappeared, and others were prevented from leaving the country for fear they might travel to Oslo for the Dec. 10 Nobel Prize ceremony.
China's foreign ministry has also warned foreign governments and embassies in Norway of unspecified "consequences" if they show support for Liu Xiaobo or attend the Oslo ceremony.
Against that backdrop, British Prime Minister David Cameron, who is leading a trade mission to China this week, waded into the touchy subject of human rights in a speech at Peking University. Saying he was not trying to "lecture or hector" China, Cameron - the first major Western leader to visit China since the Nobel prize announcement - made a pointed critique before a student audience.
"The rise in economic freedom in China in recent years had been hugely beneficial to China and to the world," Cameron said. "I hope in time this will lead to a greater political opening, because I'm convinced that the best guarantor of prosperity and stability is for economic and political progress to go in step together."
Washington Post researcher Liu Liu contributed to this report.