Five years after a devastating earthquake left more than 80,000 people dead and missing in the southwestern province of Sichuan, Chinese rights activists have launched a campaign for the release of a prominent writer jailed for investigating corruption and shoddy construction of school buildings.
An open letter circulating on China's Internet calling for the release of writer Tan Zuoren was signed by a number of prominent rights lawyers and dissidents, including Guo Feixiong and Zheng Enchong, as well as U.S.-based veteran pro-democracy activists Xu Wenli and Wang Ruowang.
Published ahead of the 5th anniversary of the May 12, 2008 quake, the letter called Tan's five-year sentencing for "incitement to subversion of state power" outrageous and asked inhabitants of the affected area to stand up on his behalf, including those hit by last month's magnitude-7 quake in near Ya'an city, which left more than 200 people dead or missing.
While top Chinese officials have called the reconstruction in the wake of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake a success, victims—including parents who lost thousands of children in the collapse of school buildings—say they have been harassed, beaten, and detained in their fight to be heard.
Tan, along with fellow activist Huang Qi, were both handed jail terms for subversion after they tried to probe the collapse of school buildings in 2008's 8.0 magnitude earthquake.
Since the quake, parents have tried to keep up pressure on Beijing for a full investigation into the deaths of at least 5,300 schoolchildren in the worst-hit areas.
The bereaved families say they want an inquiry into allegations of shoddy construction of "bean curd" school buildings, many of which collapsed while other buildings remained standing.
But lawyers have been warned off accepting cases linked to Sichuan's child quake victims, on pain of losing their license to practice.
Chen Shuqing, a member of the banned opposition China Democracy Party (CDP), said he had signed the letter to support Tan, who is a good friend.
"Everything he did was in the interests of the country and of society," Chen said. "He is just one among millions of cases of political persecution."
"We would support any cases involving political prisoners, as long as they are released."
Chen said he didn't hold out great hope that the authorities would heed the call for Tan's release, however.
"There have been so many letters like this sent out for every political prisoner oppressed by the Chinese Communist Party," he said. "But even if it has no effect, at least it will make the authorities realize ... that they will have to pay a price for political persecution."
Tan was sentenced by a Sichuan court in May 2009 after being formally accused of defaming the ruling Chinese Communist Party in e-mailed comments about 1989's bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators around Tiananmen Square.
But activists say he was detained because he planned to issue an independent report on the collapse of school buildings during the Sichuan earthquake. Official figures show that 5,335 children died in the quake, although unofficial sources say the number could be as high as 10,000.
Opposition to plant
Prominent rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang said Tan's vocal opposition to a planned paraxylene (PX) petrochemical plant near the provincial capital Chengdu could also have played a role in his sentencing.
"Firstly, this judgement was made by circumventing the law," Pu said. "Secondly, this judgement in itself was a form of oppression."
"The PX plant was approved by [former security chief] Zhou Yongkang when he was provincial Party secretary," he said. "So it probably had something to do with Zhou, and that's why he was charged with incitement to subvert state power."
Zhou stepped down during the leadership transition at the 18th Party Congress last November amid suggestions he had been tainted by his close association with disgraced former Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai, who is awaiting trial for corruption and for his involvement in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood.
Pu added: "It was wrong right from the start to charge and sentence Tan Zuoren, and he is still serving his sentence in prison. Personally I feel that this brings shame on the whole of Chinese society."
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.