HONG KONG—Authorities in Beijing have sentenced a Chinese activist who sought compensation for children sickened by the 2008 tainted milk scandal to two-and-a-half years in jail, relatives and lawyers said.
Zhao Lianhai, whose child was one of 300,000 made ill by infant formula milk laced with the industrial chemical melamine, cried out in protest when the sentence was handed down in Beijing's Daxing District People's Court on Wednesday.
According to eyewitnesses, he ripped off his prison uniform, threw it at the judge, and vowed to go back on hunger strike.
In the spectators' gallery, his devastated family broke into sobs.
"When they sentenced Zhao Lianhai to two-and-a-half years in jail, he shouted in protest, but the judge hadn't finished reading the judgment," lawyer Peng Jian said.
"Zhao Lianhai's relatives, who were in the gallery, also shouted out in protest."
Zhao's wife, Li Xuemei, mother and two sisters were present when the sentencing took place at 8:30 a.m. local time.
"They are so unjust," Li shouted, on exiting the courtroom.
"They have no human feelings left inside them," she said. "We told them ... our family circumstances, and they said they would think about it."
"I never thought that they would think about it in this way," said Li, who vowed to appeal the sentence in a higher court.
"The lawyer is going to prepare the documents."
Targeted for speaking out
Zhao's lawyer, Li Fangping, said the charges against his client should never have stood up in court.
"Not only have they found him guilty, they've given him such a harsh sentence," Li said.
He said one factor contributing to the sentence might have been the fact that Zhao spoke with the media.
"There was a sentence in the judgment which specifically mentioned Zhao giving interviews by the side of the road to reporters," Li said.
"Another thing it said was that he had held up A4 size sheets in protest at the Shijiazhuang Court and outside the offices of Sanlu," he said, referring to the dairy company where tainted milk was first discovered.
"It also said that he held a meeting on the anniversary of the '911' melamine scandal's discovery," Li added, referring to the date the scandal broke in September 2008.
He said the appeal would be lodged with an intermediate court in the next 10 days.
Zhao's supporters say he had not just been taking action on behalf of his own child, but on behalf of all children and parents who had been affected by the melamine-tainted milk scandal.
"There have been a lot of similar cases to this where people have been sentenced to six to eight month jail terms," Li said. "None of them has been more than a year."
Fellow tainted milk activist Xiang Qingyu was in the courtroom at the time the sentence was handed down.
"Zhao Lianhai said he didn't agree, and took off his uniform and threw it at the judge," Xiang said.
"He shouldn't have been found guilty ... They wouldn't let his lawyer speak," he said.
Outside the court buildings, activist Liu Shasha was handing out yellow ribbons to Zhao's supporters.
"The ribbons bear the words, 'Zhao Lianhai is Innocent' and 'Zhao Lianhai Come Home,'" said Liu.
"We rushed towards the court buildings, shouting 'two-and-a-half years,'" she said. "I asked them what he had done to get two-and-a-half years. By the time I got to the [entrance], people were shouting out behind me 'Zhao Lianhai is Innocent.'"
Jiang Yalin, a fellow activist and head of the civic group Kidney Stone Babies, said she was deeply angry at the sentence.
"I am full of grief and anger," she said. "If Zhao Lianhai is guilty, then so are all the parents who are struggling to protect the rights of their own children."
"That means our children are guilty too," Jiang said.
Professor Wang Youjin of the China University of Political Science and Law said the harshness of Zhao's sentence pointed to political factors in his case.
"The authorities are afraid that Zhao Lianhai will be a rallying point for all the parents whose children were affected by the milk scandal to stage a collective protest, and destabilize the regime," Wang said.
"The heavy sentence handed to Zhao Lianhai is intended to uphold the stability of the regime," he said.
Wang said there was little chance that any appeal would succeed in reversing the original decision.
Online reaction to the sentence was critical, with Beijing-based legal scholar Teng Biao slamming the court as "shameless."
"We should run a search on the court official who signed this judgment," Teng said on the microblogging service Twitter.
"He too will be judged!"
Another user wrote: "Zhao Lianhai ran to the four corners of the earth to get justice for the kidney stone babies ... but so far not a single agency or company has paid out a penny in compensation."
'Provoking social disorder'
Zhao was accused of holding "illegal meetings and shouting slogans" leading to social disturbance, and could have faced a jail term of up to five years.
He went on trial behind closed doors in a Beijing court on March 30, accused of "provoking social disorder."
Authorities say almost all of the 25,100 tons of defective milk powder seized in the 2008 toxic baby food probe have now been incinerated and buried.
The announcement came after melamine was found in further dairy products in several Chinese provinces last year.
Three executives of the Shanghai Panda Dairy Company were jailed for terms of three to five years in March for their roles in the production and sale of melamine-tainted dairy products last year.
And in November 2009, authorities in the northern city of Shijiazhuang executed two people for their role in the scandal, which killed at least six children and sickened hundreds of thousands.
Reported in Mandarin by Qiao Long. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.