Authorities in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangxi have sentenced to labor camp two petitioners who took part in the annual July 1 demonstrations in Hong Kong, their relatives said on Tuesday.
Song Ningsheng and Zeng Jiuzi were handed the one-year sentences, which can be processed administratively with no need for a trial, as a punishment for their involvement in the demonstrations, during which tens of thousands of people each year vent their frustrations against the authorities in the former British colony.
Zeng's son Liu Zhonghua was given the news verbally by police in Jiangxi's Ningdu county, he said in an interview on Tuesday.
"The police said that my mother and Song Ningsheng went to Hong Kong and took part in an illegal demonstration," Liu said. "They had also petitioned illegally in Beijing a number of times."
"I asked [the officer] whether they would give me an official notification document, and he said there was no need, because they could just do this with a nod to the people at the labor camp," he said.
Liu said he fully supported his mother's trip to Hong Kong, however.
"There's absolutely no way to fight for one's rights here in mainland China," he said. "Of course we are going to try anything we can."
Zeng has been petitioning ever since her husband died in mysterious circumstances while working in the eastern province of Shandong, calling on the authorities to re-open an investigation into the cause of his death.
An official who answered the phone at the Ningdu county Communist Party politics and law committee said the length of the sentence was for the police to decide.
"These two are regular petitioners, and known to everyone in the Ningdu county government," the official said. "These two individuals signed an agreement saying they would stop petitioning, then they started again."
"I don't even know what their demands are," he said.
'A really big deal'
Song and Zeng were part of a group of 57 petitioners from mainland China who joined a protest organized during the rally by Hong Kong-based human rights group, the Chinese People’s Rights Alliance.
The protesters carried banners that read "We are from mainland China," and "Smash the black jails," in a reference to China's network of unofficial detention centers used to hold those who complain about the government.
The group's founder Liu Weiping said disguised mainland Chinese security police had followed and harassed the petitioners during the visit to the territory by president Hu Jintao to mark the anniversary of Hong Kong's 1997 return to Chinese rule.
"This is a really big deal that the state security police followed them all the way to Hong Kong," Liu Weiping said. "Hong Kong and mainland China are supposed to be separate systems that don't mingle with each other."
Under the terms of its 1997 handover to China, Hong Kong has been promised the continuation of existing freedoms of expression and association for 50 years.
But journalists say government officials are increasingly limiting the flow of information to Hong Kong's media, and parents have recently protested against plans to roll out "patriotic education" programs in the territory's primary schools.
Liu Weiping said such sentences would do little to stem the flow of petitioners, ordinary Chinese who spend years pursuing official complaints over police mistreatment, forced eviction, and land appropriation with little result.
"The Chinese government should understand that they're not going to frighten off most petitioners just by punishing one or two of them," he said.
"The petitioners are no longer afraid to die."
Jiangxi-based rights activist Wei Zhongping said that the petitioners had tried to make use of Hong Kong's relative freedoms to make their voices heard.
"Citizen's demands just don't get support in China ... and I think they have been forced into going to Hong Kong," Wei said.
"It's shameful that the authorities have used such harsh and evil tactics to deal with these rights activists."
China’s army of petitioners say they are repeatedly stonewalled, detained in “black jails,” beaten, and harassed by authorities if they try to take complaints against local government actions to higher levels of government.
China's petitioners, many of whom sleep rough in the underpasses of the capital as they attempt to complain against the ruling Communist Party, are increasing in number annually, officials say.
The contemporary "letters and visits" system was formally established in 1951 and reinstated during the 1980s following the large number of appeals against summary verdicts handed down during the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).
China says it receives between 3 million and 4 million complaints in the form of "letters and visits" annually, with the number peaking at 12.72 million in 2003.
Reported by Lin Jing for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Fang Yuan for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.