HONG KONG—Authorities in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan have detained dozens of relatives of schoolchildren killed in a devastating 2008 earthquake after they tried to attend the high-profile trial of writer Tan Zuoren.
Sang Jun, whose child died when the Mianzhu Fuxin No. 2 Elementary School collapsed in the May 12 quake, said several hundred parents had tried to enter the public gallery of the Chengdu Municipal Intermediate People's Court on Wednesday.
"There were several parents detained who were representing each school [in the earthquake region]," Sang said.
"A lot of people were taken to the Huangzhong police station, and they haven't yet been released."
"We went there to find them, and the police made us wait outside. There [were] about 400-500 people outside the police station waiting," he added.
Parents from Shifang city, Beichuan county, and Dujiangyan township in the areas worst-hit by the quake had all traveled to the provincial capital to try to attend the trial, which was adjourned without a verdict Wednesday, Sang’s lawyer said.
Tan Zuoren is formally accused of defaming the 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, in which more than 80,000 people died.
Official figures show that 5,335 children died in the quake, although unofficial sources say the number could be as high as 10,000.
Top Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was also outside the courthouse, where he said he was beaten by police.
"I took issue with the legality of their actions, so they turned on me and started beating me," said Ai, who is also a blogger and social commentator and the designer of Beijing's emblematic "Bird's Nest" stadium, which formed the centerpiece of the 2008 Olympics.
"They beat me about the head."
Five of the 11 people who traveled with Ai were taken from their hotel rooms at midnight Wednesday, but four were later released. One remained in police custody late Wednesday, her husband said in an interview.
Many bereaved parents say school buildings were poorly constructed and collapsed too easily when the quake struck, while structures nearby stood firm.
They say authorities have prevented them from filing lawsuits or staging public demonstrations of anger or mourning since the 8.0-magnitude quake.
Attempts to investigate the issue of school building quality have met with swift repression from the authorities, who were otherwise praised for their swift response to the disaster and for the the unprecedented openness of media coverage.
Support for Tan
A parent activist surnamed Zhang said from Chengdu that parents wanted official openness around the cause of their children's deaths.
"Every family wants to see justice," Zhang said.
"This has been supported by Tan Zuoren. Our government is really too dark."
Sang said: "We have come here to support Tan Zuoren because he tried to get justice for the families of the quake victims. But the court wouldn't allow any of the families of victims to go into the building."
A court official, Deng Xia, declined to comment on the incident.
"If there is a problem, this can be taken up with the relevant departments," Deng said.
Another parent, who was detained for three hours before being released, said he was grabbed by two policemen and pushed into a van.
"We were let out at 1 p.m., and then the Mianzhu government sent a bus to get us to go back to Mianzhu," he added.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Qiao Long, and in Cantonese by Grace Kei Lai-see. 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.