Gansu Authorities Order Environmental Activist Sun Xiaodi and His Daughter to Serve Reeducation Through Labor

November 6, 2009

Authorities in Gansu province ordered environmentalist Sun Xiaodi to serve 2 years and his daughter to serve 18 months in reeducation through labor (RTL) detention centers in June for "illegally providing state secrets overseas" and "rumor mongering." Sun Xiaodi had recently reported to central authorities that local officials had exaggerated evidence of earthquake damage from the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in order to obtain earthquake relief funds. Sun also reported on pollution problems and expanded production at a local uranium mine. Authorities first criminally detained Sun, but it is unclear why officials later ordered Sun and his daughter to serve RTL, a form of administrative detention outside the criminal justice system.

On July 9, 2009, The RTL Management Committee in the Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu province, ordered Sun Xiaodi, a Gansu environmental activist who reportedly exposed pollution problems and illegal activities at a mine in Diebu County, Gansu to serve two years of reeducation through labor (RTL) for "illegally providing state secrets overseas" and "rumor mongering," according to a July 17, 2009, Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) news release. Authorities in Gannan also ordered Sun's daughter, Sun Haiyan (also known as Sun Dunbai) to serve 18 months of RTL for the same activities according to CHRD. The RTL committee asserted that Sun "stole" information about the No. 792 Uranium Mine in Diebu County, according to a copy of the RTL decision available in a July 16, 2009, Human Rights in China article. (Chinese-language version of the decision available via Boxun). The RTL decision also stated that Mr. Sun Xiaodi provided to foreign media the location of the uranium mine, production data, and information about the grade of uranium mined and had "spread rumors" about "fake earthquakes," "pollution from the uranium mine," and "human rights violations."

Sun Xiaodi's wife, Hu Jianhong, stated Sun Xiaodi had recently told the central government and human rights groups that Diebu county officials had exaggerated evidence of earthquake damage in the county from the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in order to obtain earthquake relief funds, according to a June 25, 2009, CHRD article. The CHRD report also noted that Sun's longstanding activities exposing and complaining about pollution, health risks, and contamination from the mine had drawn ongoing harassment from authorities. Sun's wife reported that authorities did not allow her to hire a lawyer due to the "political" nature of the case, according to a July 17, 2009, Agence France-Presse article. In addition, according to a July 20-26, 2009, CHRD briefing, Sun's wife reported being threatened by authorities who warned her not to contact "illegal" human rights organizations. Sun Xiaodi is currently serving his RTL sentence at the Lanzhou Anning District RTL detention center and had filed for an administrative reconsideration of the case, according to the CHRD briefing. The Gansu Public Security Department rejected the request for administrative reconsideration and RTL detention center officials prohibited Sun's wife from visiting her husband because Sun's case involved "special" circumstances, according to an October 8, 2009, CHRD article.

Given the seriousness of the state secrets allegations and because Sun was first criminally detained, as reported in a CHRD June 25, 2009, article, it is unclear why officials ultimately ordered Sun and his daughter to serve reeducation through labor—a form of administrative punishment usually given to "minor offenders"— instead of seeking criminal prosecution and following established criminal legal procedures. According to a 2009 China Rights Forum article written by Fu Hualing, frequently, RTL "is used as an alternative punishment for people who are suspected of having committed a serious offense that the police are unable to prove." The RTL system operates outside of the judicial system and the Criminal Procedure Law, and enables law enforcement officials to detain Chinese citizens for up to four years without a trial. See page 99 of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China 2009 Annual Report for additional information on RTL. In addition, it is unclear how Sun's actions violated Chinese law, especially in light of legal protections for people who report on environmental pollution. According to Article 6 of the PRC Environmental Protection Law "all units and individuals shall have the obligation to protect the environment and shall have the right to report on or file charges against units or individuals that cause pollution or damage to the environment" and Article 3 of the Regulations on Letters and Visits states "no organization or individual may retaliate against letter-writers or visitors." ("Letters and visits system" refers to China's complaint management, or xinfang, system.)

Background on Harassment of Sun Xiaodi for His Complaint Activities

Sun Xiaodi began to make complaints about the No. 792 Uranium Mine in 1988 because of its alleged illegal resale of radioactive contaminated mining equipment, illegal mining, and illegal disposal of untreated radioactive water, according to a January 2, 2007, Human Rights in China press release. An article by Ren Chong reported that Sun had complained about elevated radiation levels in shops and in the soil along the roadways. Sun had also documented cases of hazardous working conditions, increased rates of cancer among people living near the mines, and improper disposal of radioactive waste and equipment.

According to the article, mine leaders and local government officials harassed Sun Xiaodi for years for his environmental advocacy efforts (p. 31-33). Government officials were reportedly unresponsive to Sun's complaints about the mine and in 1994, mine leaders fired him. Mine leaders also assigned his wife, who also worked at the mine, to heavy manual labor. In addition, their home was vandalized. The government closed the mine in 2002 but employees stated production actually continued and mine leaders even expanded the mine pit. On April 28, 2005, also according to the China Rights Forum article, while in Beijing to petition national-level authorities about the mine's pollution, and shortly after Sun met with foreign journalists, unidentified individuals abducted Sun from the street. The article reported that authorities held him for eight months without informing his family of his whereabouts. After authorities released him in December 2005, they confined him to his home. According to a January 2, 2007, Human Rights in China press release, official harassment of Sun Xiaodi intensified after he received the Nuclear-Free Future Award in December 2006 for his nuclear safety advocacy efforts; on several occasions rocks reportedly were thrown at his door and windows. Upon reporting the attacks, local state security officers allegedly told him "you are free to leave if you want to."

For more information regarding RTL and environmental activism, see the CECC 2009 Annual Report.