Authorities Release Prominent Tainted Milk Activist, Zhao Lianhai, on Medical Parole

February 15, 2011

In late December 2010, Chinese authorities released on medical parole a prominent advocate for children poisoned by tainted milk. Zhao Lianhai, whose son was a victim, led parents in criticizing the government's response to the scandal that began in the fall of 2008. He was later sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for disturbing public order. As is typical in politically sensitive cases, officials appeared to abuse the criminal process, making it difficult for Zhao to mount a defense and delaying the announcement of his sentence. His release came after Zhao surprised his lawyers by dismissing them and giving up his appeal.

Chinese officials reportedly released Zhao Lianhai, an advocate for victims of tainted milk, on medical parole on December 28, 2010, according to a January 1, 2011, South China Morning Post (SCMP) article (main Web site's link is here; subscription required to view past articles). A month earlier, authorities had sentenced Zhao to two-and-a-half years in prison for "provoking quarrels and making trouble," the report said. According to SCMP, on December 31 Zhao called his lawyers to tell them he had been released and was being treated at a hospital for an unspecified illness. A blog post purportedly written by Zhao also said he was on medical parole, had admitted guilt, and did not want anyone to contact him or bother his family, according to a December 29 SCMP article. "I hope my incident can be quietened [sic] down," the blog post read. "This will be good for the country and society, as well as for my family."

The underlying reason for Zhao's release is not known, but one of his former lawyers, Li Fangping, said that he believed authorities pressured Zhao to accept a deal, according to a November 24 SCMP article. Zhao appeared set to appeal his sentence, but later surprised his lawyers by dismissing them and giving up the appeal, according to the November 24 SCMP article and a November 23 SCMP article. Zhao's lawyers reported that he was unwilling to meet with them, that a court had refused to accept appeal papers they had prepared, and that authorities detained one of them and warned them not to appeal, according to a November 22 Associated Press article (via Yahoo!) and a November 19 Radio Free Asia article (in Chinese). Article 180 of the Criminal Procedure Law provides that a "defendant shall not be deprived on any pretext of his right to appeal."

Zhao gained supporters among other parents as an advocate for their efforts to seek redress and medical treatment for children sickened by milk tainted with the chemical melamine, a scandal that surfaced in the fall of 2008, according to a January 17, 2009, Toronto Star feature story on Zhao. Zhao's son was one of the officially estimated 300,000 victims and suffered from a kidney stone. Zhao, the former editor of a food and product safety publication, spoke for parents in calling for more medical research and treatment. He and other parents voiced concern that the government-backed compensation plan excluded many victims and failed to address victims' long-term health problems, according to a November 10, 2010, New York Times (NYT) article. Zhao organized a Web site, "Kidney Stone Babies," and reportedly encouraged parents to file lawsuits against the milk companies allegedly responsible for the poisoning. (See this previous CECC analysis on authorities' attempts to prevent lawyers and courts from taking such cases.) Authorities repeatedly harassed Zhao, including briefly detaining him and urging him and his family to cease his campaign, according to the Toronto Star.

On November 13, 2009, Zhao was detained on formal charges and on November 10, 2010, the Daxing District People's Court in Beijing sentenced him to two-and-a-half years in prison, according to Human Rights in China articles of November 13, 2009, and November 10, 2010. Zhao's lawyer, Peng Jian, posted a copy of the court judgment on his blog, but said he removed it after he was told to take it down because the case involved personal privacy. The court judgment indicates that Zhao was punished for violating Article 293(4) of the Criminal Law. Article 293(4) provides for a maximum term of five years for "creating disturbances in a public place, thus causing serious disorder in such place." The court judgment said Zhao had disturbed order by organizing public gatherings and citing as evidence press conferences, a restaurant outing to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the milk scandal, and demonstrations in front of courts conducting hearings related to Sanlu, the milk company at the center of the scandal. The Daxing court also noted Zhao's attempts to publicize the alleged rape of Li Ruirui by a guard at a hotel in Beijing after officials took her there because of her petitioning activities. (For more information about this case, see a November 5 China Daily article.) The court also said Zhao had "taken advantage of hot-button social issues" to incite people to gather, and noted evidence indicating the presence of journalists and the shouting of slogans and holding up of signs at the events. The court did not explain how it concluded that these actions "resulted in serious disturbance of public order."

In politically sensitive cases in China, officials often ignore or fail to enforce legal protections for suspects and defendants (see, e.g., Liu Xiaobo, Xue Feng, Huang Qi, and Tan Zuoren). In addition to the apparent pressure on Zhao not to appeal, officials also committed abuses in Zhao's detention, trial, and sentencing.

  • Access to Counsel. Authorities reportedly used various reasons to prevent two lawyers from meeting with Zhao and it was not until January 2010 that Zhao met with Li Fangping, according to a January 7, 2010, Radio Free Asia article (in Chinese). Li said that police officers monitored this first meeting, a violation of the Lawyers Law. (Article 33 gives lawyers the right to meet with criminal suspects and prohibits monitoring (jianting) of such meetings.)
  • Evidence Not Allowed. The court refused to let the defense present witnesses and video evidence, according to the NYT article. According to Peng, "The judge said the prosecution's case was so solid, there was no need."
  • Long Delay Between Court Hearing and Sentencing. The court did not sentence Zhao until November 10, 2010, more than seven months after his March trial hearing. Article 168 of the Criminal Procedure Law gives a court up to two-and-a-half months (including approved extensions) after accepting a case to issue a judgment. In this case, the court would have accepted the case sometime before the March hearing. In addition, Article 165 provides for postponements of hearings if during trial certain situations occur, including if the prosecution requests a supplementary investigation. The prosecution shall then have one month to complete a supplementary investigation (Article 166), after which the time limit for a court to issue its judgment resets (Article 168). It is unclear what combination of extensions or supplementary investigations, if any, enabled the court to postpone its decision. The court judgment provides no explanation. Zhao's lawyer, Li Fangping, said that there had been three extensions, according to a November 10 Caijing article (link no longer available). Li did not specify the nature of these extensions but said that even with such extensions the court far exceeded the allowable time limit.

Zhao joins a list of Chinese citizens who in recent years have questioned the government's response to domestic natural and man-made disasters and social problems and attempted to express their concerns and organize peacefully but were subsequently detained and sentenced by authorities. These citizens include Tan Zuoren and Huang Qi, advocates of victims of the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Wu Lihong, a long-time environmental activist, and Yang Chunlin, a land rights activist.

For more information on Chinese authorities' handling of food safety, product quality, and public health issues and treatment of citizens advocating in these areas, see Section II―Public Health and Section III―Commercial Rule of Law in the CECC 2010 Annual Report. For information on authorities' efforts to suppress information about the milk scandal in the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, see Section II―Freedom of Expression in the CECC 2008 Annual Report.