HONG KONG—Authorities in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan have handed a five-year jail term to activist and writer Tan Zuoren for subversion after he planned to release an independent report assessing the widespread collapse of schools in the devastating 2008 earthquake.
The verdict, which will also deprive him of political rights for three years, was read out briefly at the Intermediate People’s Court in the provincial capital Chengdu on Tuesday, as around 200 supporters gathered outside waiting for news.
The verdict said Tan Zuoren was convicted of “inciting subversion of state power” over his criticisms of China's handling of the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, according to Tan's lawyers.
Tan published several articles online about the military suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations, but he wasn't arrested until he began an inquiry into the deaths of thousands of children in the May 12, 2008 quake, which left nearly 88,000 people dead or missing.
Tan's lawyer Pu Zhiqiang said the charges related only to Tan’s articles published on overseas Web sites calling for redress for the families of hundreds of students and citizens killed by soldiers in downtown Beijing during the 1989 crackdown, with no mention made of the quake.
He added that the charges were fabricated and the verdict was "too harsh."
"Tan Zuoren is among only a few people in the past decade who were sentenced to heavy jail terms for publishing memorial articles or comments over Tiananmen. This case is fabricated and like that of Liu Xiaobo," Pu said, referencing the Beijing-based writer who was jailed for 11 years last December.
Lu was sentenced after helping to draft the controversial Charter 08 document which calls for political and social change in China.
"The verdict was unrelated to the Sichuan-earthquake, however, surprising both Tan and me,” Pu said.
Pu said Tan pleaded not guilty and, when led out of the courtroom, the activist yelled that it was an "honor to go to prison for the people of my birthplace.”
Pu went to the jail to see Tan Tuesday afternoon following the verdict.
“He looked calm but felt the jail term was too severe. We are planning an appeal and preparing for the second trial, which will certainly focus on Tiananmen," he said.
"There is no Chinese law which states that expressing sympathy for Tiananmen victims or disagreeing with the way the government handled it is a crime,” Tan’s lawyer Pu said.
Police barred Tan’s family members from attending the trial on Tuesday, expelling about 200 of his supporters who came from around the country when they gathered in front of the courthouse.
Tan’s wife Wang Qinghua went to the courthouse with her two daughters but they were driven away by police.
“When the trial began, police were still trying to keep us away. I was still arguing with them by the time the trial had already ended. The whole procedure took only about five minutes," Wang said.
“Another thing that angers me is that police have been controlling all of my friends since last night,” she said.
Poor construction alleged
Thousands of schools in Sichuan collapsed on students during the quake, prompting accusations of shoddy construction and official graft.
Tan played an important role in investigating the exact number of elementary and middle school student deaths, which has never been made public by the government.
The parents of the victims have repeatedly been warned off pursuing their complaints and prevented from staging public mourning ceremonies.
Lawyers across China have been warned against representing them.
Amnesty International called the sentence unfair and called for Tan's release.
“His arrest, unfair trial, and now the guilty verdict are further disturbing examples of how the Chinese authorities use vague and over-broad laws to silence and punish dissenting voices,” said Roseann Rife, the group's deputy director for the Asia-Pacific.
“The Chinese authorities cannot continue to claim that they are dealing with human rights defenders according to the law when they violate so many of their own legal procedures in cases like this.”
The International Federation of Journalists said it was "appalled" by a news blackout surrounding Tan's trial, which had led to the detention of nine Hong Kong journalists trying to cover the story.
At Tan's trial last August, controversial Chinese artist Ai Weiwei—who also investigated the quake school deaths—said he was detained and beaten by police who blocked him from testifying on Tan's behalf.
Ai underwent surgery in Germany the following month to relieve pressure on his brain from a blood clot, which he said was the result of the police beating in Chengdu.
Cyber activist Chen Yunfei was put on house arrest by police in Chengdu the night before Tan’s trial.
Ran called the sentencing of Tan "shameless," but added that the verdict would allow "people all over the world to have the opportunity to see his sacrifice for democracy and freedom in China.”
The news of Tan’s sentencing angered China's netizens who voiced their indignation using micro-blogging service Twitter and other Internet communication tools. According to Tan’s supporters, more than 10,000 related postings has been made on Twitter within one hour of his verdict.