Chengdu Courts Hold Trials of Earthquake Activists

November 6, 2009

On August 5 and August 12, 2009, courts in Chengdu city, Sichuan province, held separate trials in the cases of Tan Zuoren and Huang Qi, both of whom sought to help parents of children who died in school collapses following the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Although officials originally pledged to investigate the collapses, they instead suppressed attempts by parents to seek redress and blocked media and citizens from independently investigating the role played by shoddy construction. Tan organized an independent investigation into the cause of the collapses, while Huang publicized the parents' demands on his human rights Web site. Officials charged Huang and Tan with endangering national security, Huang for possessing state secrets and Tan for various activities including writing about and commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen protests. In both cases, the trials reportedly were marred by procedural irregularities and official misconduct.

Tan Zuoren Case

August 12 Trial, Defense Not Permitted To Call Witnesses and Present Evidence, Witness and Parents of Quake Victims Held in Custody, Reporters Barred and Harassed

The Chengdu Intermediate People's Court conducted the trial of writer and environmental activist Tan Zuoren on August 12, 2009, on the charge of inciting subversion of state power, according to an August 13 China Daily article and an August 13 Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) article. The conduct of the trial reportedly was marred by official abuses and procedural violations, including:

  • The court reportedly rejected requests by Tan's lawyers to call three witnesses, including Ai Weiwei, a noted artist and blogger who helped design the Beijing Olympics' Bird's Nest Stadium and was investigating the deaths of students in the quake, according to the China Daily article, a second August 13 CHRD article, and an August 12 Human Rights in China (HRIC) report. Ai told various news agencies that he planned to still watch the trial but that police came to his hotel and prevented him and 10 other volunteers from leaving until after the trial ended (see, e.g., August 12 Reuters article, August 12 Guardian article). Ai also indicated that police had used force in the process, including striking him in the face.
  • Tan's lawyers, Pu Zhiqiang and Xia Lin, reported that the judge frequently cut them off during the trial and that their request to show video evidence was not accepted, according to the China Daily and second CHRD articles.
  • Parents of earthquake victims attempting to attend the trial were detained, according to an August 13 Global Times article.
  • The court did not allow reporters into the court, according to the China Daily article. Police reportedly searched the hotel rooms of two Hong Kong reporters attempting to cover the case, claiming that they were acting on reports that the journalists possessed drugs, and did not free them until seven hours later, according to an August 13 Agence France-Presse article (via The Australian).
  • Police barred hundreds of supporters from entering the courtroom saying the supporters needed passes, even though court officials earlier had told them that no passes were necessary, according to an August 12 CHRD report.

Tan's Alleged Crimes, Earthquake Activism

The procuratorate's indictment, dated July 17 (translation posted by China Digital Times), said Tan was charged with inciting subversion because he (1) committed libel against the Communist Party by distorting its handling of the 1989 protests in a 2007 online essay, (2) agreed to a telephone interview with the overseas "enemy" radio station "Voice of Hope" in June 2008 and commemorated the 1989 protests that year by making a blood donation, (3) contacted a prominent 1989 student leader now in the United States (i.e., Wang Dan) about holding a global Chinese blood drive to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the protests, and (4) gave interviews to international media after the earthquake in which he severely harmed the image of the Party and Chinese government. According to the defense pleading (in Chinese) posted on CHRD's Web site, Tan's lawyers argued that the inciting subversion crime for which Tan was charged (Article 105(2) of China's Criminal Law) belongs to the category of crimes of endangering national security but that no legislative or judicial interpretation existed in China to define this crime (inciting subversion). Tan's lawyers sought to provide guidance by making reference to the Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, which were drafted under the direction of Article 19, a non-governmental organization (NGO) advocating for free expression, and endorsed by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression at several sessions of the UN Commission on Human Rights in the late 1990s and 2001. Specifically, the lawyers noted that Principle 6 provides that expression may be punished as a threat to national security only if a government can demonstrate that the expression is intended to incite imminent violence or is likely to incite such violence. Tan's lawyers said that none of Tan's language in the case incited violence and that his motives were not only peaceful but intended to protect national security as opposed to endangering it.

Following the earthquake, Tan had been active in calling for the government to investigate the cause of the large number of school collapses. Shortly after the quake, Tan, who worked for Green River, a Chengdu-based environmental NGO, was cited in a May 27, 2008, South China Morning Post (SCMP) article (subscription required) as saying "the government and the public must work together to find an answer" to why so many schools collapsed, and urged local governments to inspect other school buildings for shoddy construction. Prompted by his frustration that local governments and education and building officials had not fully investigated the matter, in February 2009, Tan issued a proposal over the Internet calling on volunteers to travel to Sichuan to compile lists of students killed in the quake, to research the treatment of parents, and to conduct an independent investigation into the quality of school buildings, according to an April 1 CHRD article (in Chinese) and a May 4 CHRD article. In March, Tan and his partner issued a preliminary version of the report (in Chinese, via the CHRD Web site), which Tan hoped to complete by the quake's first anniversary, according to the May 4 CHRD article. The report criticized officials for failing to follow through on a commitment to fully investigate the role that shoddy construction played in the collapses and local officials for being unable to deal with parents' demands. The preliminary report found that problems with the quality of the construction of school buildings were a contributing factor in some of the students' deaths, which according to their tally numbered 5,522 students, with another 78 missing. The tally was incomplete, according to the May 4 CHRD article. In a March 19 SCMP article (subscription required), Tan said that before the earthquake, an inspector had noticed cracks at a middle school that may have made it vulnerable to the quake. Authorities detained Tan on March 28, three days after the report was published, according to the August 12 HRIC report.

Huang Qi Case

August 5 Trial, Kidnapping of Witness

The Chengdu Wuhou District People's Court held a closed trial of rights activist Huang Qi on August 5, 2009, on suspicion of "illegal possession of state secrets," according to an August 5 Human Rights in China (HRIC) article. The underlying activity giving rise to the state secrets charge is unclear but shortly before he was detained on June 10, 2008, Huang had traveled to the earthquake zone and written about parents who lost children in the disaster and their demands for an investigation and compensation (see previous CECC analysis). Huang posted the writings on his human rights Web site, Tianwang Human Rights Center. Huang's lawyer said that during Huang's detention authorities questioned him about interviews he conducted during visits to areas affected by the quake as well as undisclosed issues relating to the state secrets charge. Chinese officials have considerable discretion to declare information a state secret and their power to use such a charge to deny defendants access to counsel and an open trial is subject to few limitations.

At trial, authorities continued to obstruct the ability of Huang's lawyers to make their case. According to HRIC, four police officers kidnapped Pu Fei, a volunteer for the Tianwang Human Rights Center, to prevent him from testifying on Huang's behalf. In February 2009, the district court violated China's Criminal Procedure Law by giving only one day's notice of the trial, and then postponed the trial. Late last year, Huang's lawyers criticized their lack of access to police evidence and case files.

The HRIC article said 40 to 50 supporters had gathered outside the trial, including "farmers who had lost land, evicted petitioners, and other rights defenders that Huang Qi had helped in the past."

Huang's Medical Problems

Huang suffers from numerous medical conditions, but authorities reportedly have refused to treat him. The conditions include two tumors in Huang's abdomen, hepatitis B, an irregular heartbeat, and two lumps in his left breast, according to an August 5 Associated Press article (via Newsday) and an August 5 National Public Radio story. Officials have also denied requests to allow Huang to visit with his seriously ill father, according to the HRIC report.

Huang previously served a five-year sentence from 2000 to 2005 for "inciting subversion of state power." The court in that case cited articles Huang posted on his Web site dealing with topics such as "democracy," "June 4," and "Falun Gong."

Background on Earthquake and Parents' Demands

On May 12, 2008, a magnitude 8.0 earthquake struck Sichuan province, which an official said left 68,712 dead and 17,921 missing, according to a May 8, 2009, People's Daily article. High-level officials traveled quickly to the scene and initially allowed media relatively more freedom to report. The collapse of a large number of schools while nearby buildings continued to stand, however, raised questions of shoddy construction and corruption. (See May 30, 2008, Washington Post report and September 4 New York Times (NYT) report, in which officials acknowledged that poor construction of schools may have contributed to their collapse.) Officials initially pledged to punish anyone responsible for shoddy construction (see, e.g., May 27 SCMP article, subscription required), but parents of the thousands of children who died grew frustrated at officials' unwillingness to fully investigate the school collapses. Officials responded instead with suppression and harassment, using riot police to break up protests and offering parents money in exchange for silence (NYT, Sept. 4), ordering parents to serve reeducation through labor, keeping parents under surveillance, and stopping them from holding memorials (Radio Free Asia, Oct. 8), refusing to hear a lawsuit filed by a group of parents seeking an apology and compensation (Associated Press via ABC News, Dec. 31), and preventing parents from traveling to Beijing to petition the central government (NYT, Jan. 8, 2009). In addition, in the month after the quake, restrictions on the media were tightened, with reporters from less-tightly controlled media forced to leave the quake zone and publications that called into question the construction quality of schools facing criticism, according to a May 12, 2009, NYT article.

Officials did not release the death toll for students until one year later, putting the number at 5,335 (People's Daily, May 8). Associated Press (AP) said at the time in a May 7 article (via AOL News) that "[s]o far no one has been held responsible or punished" and noted that the head of Sichuan's construction department continued to maintain that "[a]ccording to our investigations and samples we have taken, we have not found any case of buildings that collapsed in the earthquake zone mainly because of construction quality." In the AP report, Ai Weiwei expressed disappointment with the death toll announcement, saying officials "didn't give any names or any other information on where they died, which schools or which classes they were in."

CECC Recommendations

Call on the Chinese government to:

  • Protect Huang Qi's and Tan Zuoren's rights to freedom of speech, expression, and association. Based on the published reports about these cases, Huang and Tan engaged in peaceful activities that are guaranteed under China's Constitution and international law. Specifically:
  • Allow parents, concerned citizens, and the news media to conduct their own investigations into the role shoddy construction may have played in the school collapses, free from harassment and official interference. China has pledged to protect such activities in its National Human Rights Action Plan of China (2009-2010), which says "the state will guarantee citizens' rights to criticize, give advice to, complain of, and accuse state organs and civil servants, and give full play to the role of mass organizations, social organizations and the news media in supervising state organs and civil servants." Furthermore, the plan calls for specific measures to guarantee human rights in areas hit by the earthquake, including "respecting earthquake victims" and "registering the names of people who died or disappeared in the earthquake and made [sic] them known to the public."
  • Increase transparency regarding the government's own investigations into the school collapses by releasing the details of such investigations and information about victims, including students who died. The Regulations on Open Government Information require government agencies to disclose information that involves the vital interests of citizens (Article 9(1)).