HONG KONG—Chinese authorities have taken swift steps to censor online news and information about the trial of an activist who sought compensation for children who fell ill or died during a tainted milk scandal in 2008.
Zhao Lianhai, whose child was one of 300,000 made ill by infant formula milk laced with the industrial chemical melamine, went on trial behind closed doors in a Beijing court Tuesday, accused of "provoking social disorder."
Beijing-based civil rights lawyer Teng Biao posted the entire contents of Zhao's defense to his blog, but the post was deleted twice by censors, as were a series of subsequent comments by Chinese netizens.
Teng later said via the microblogging service Twitter that he believed "Zhao Lianhai" had been added to the list of "sensitive words" which would spark action from China's wide-ranging system of Internet blocks and filters.
A handful of Zhao's supporters, including his five-year-old son, appeared outside the Beijing Daxing District Court Tuesday for the six-hour hearing. His son held a placard which read "Daddy Come Home!".
"We are the victims," Zhao's wife, Li Xuemei, told reporters at the scene. "We already have it tough, with so many children [affected]."
"We still have had no redress. [The authorities] won't engage with us," Li said. "In fact they seek to suppress us instead. I don't understand it."
'Not enough evidence'
Zhao's lawyer, Peng Jian, said the state prosecution service hadn't provided enough evidence for some of the accusations it made against Zhao.
"There isn't enough evidence to establish that Zhao Lianhai instigated a gathering of the people concerned outside the Beijing municipal Public Security Bureau," Peng Jian said.
Peng added that one of the conditions necessary for establishing "trouble-making" as an offense was that the accused's actions should have let to a serious social disturbance, but evidence that this had occurred was also lacking.
Beijing-based civil rights lawyer Li Fangping said the families affected by the melamine-tainted milk should be regarded as the victims of a public health scandal.
"We believe that [Zhao] is a victim, along with all those families and those tens of thousands of children," Li said.
"His own child ... has been deeply affected by the poisoned milk."
Fellow activist Jiang Yalin said Zhao had left the court building wearing manacles.
"I am really at a loss to understand this," said Jiang, Zhao's colleague at the pressure group Kidney Stone Babies.
"Zhao hasn't even been accused of a very serious crime. Why does he have to wear leg-irons?" she said.
Zhao is accused of holding "illegal meetings and shouting slogans" leading to social disturbance, and could face a jail term of up to five years.
Milk powder seized
Authorities say almost all of the 25,100 tonnes of defective milk powder seized in the 2008 toxic baby food probe have now been incinerated and buried, official media reported earlier this month.
China's National Food Safety Rectification Office said only a small amount of tainted milk powder had been kept as samples, for example, for use in judicial procedures.
The announcement came after melamine was found in further dairy products in several Chinese provinces last year.
Three executives of Shanghai Panda Dairy Company were jailed for terms of three to five years earlier this month for their roles in the production and sale of melamine-tainted dairy products last year, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
Original reporting in Cantonese by Bok Zimok and in Mandarin by Qiao Long. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.