Authorities in China are holding a prominent parent campaigner under criminal detention after she helped to organized protests over faulty vaccines last month.
He Fangmei, the mother of a baby made sick by a faulty vaccine, was initially detained by police from her home province of Henan on Feb. 25 during a protest by parents of children affected by faulty vaccines outside the National Health Commission in Beijing, rights groups said.
She was taken to an unofficial detention center at Majialou on the outskirts of the capital, before being sent back to her home city of Xinjiang on March 5 under escort.
He, who is also known by her online nickname Shisanmei, was handed a 15-day administrative sentence on her arrival in Xinxiang.
But instead of releasing her, the authorities issued a notice of criminal detention dated March 20, and are continuing to hold her on suspicion of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," according to the Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network.
She is currently being held at Xinxiang Detention Center.
"He Fangmei and her husband have been part of a group of victims and their families protesting government mishandling of scandals over faulty vaccines after the couple’s daughter got very sick," CHRD said in a statement on its website.
"They have faced reprisals since September 2018 for calling for accountability and protection for victims, including brief detention, denial of passports, and eviction from their home," the group said.
He's last communication via Twitter was dated Feb. 26.
"We were protesting injustice outside the National Health Commission, when a journalist came over to interview us," He's tweet said. "Then they went to interview the head of the vaccine control center, Gao Fu, who told them that Chinese vaccines are the safest in the world."
'Picking quarrels and stirring up trouble'
He had earlier posted a video clip of the protest to Twitter, which showed them chanting: "Vaccinating us to death! Give us back our health! Give us back our kids! Emergency treatment now! Long-term care later!"
Around 30 parents of children made sick by substandard and expired vaccines gathered outside the National Health Commission headquarters on Feb. 22, ahead of the annual parliamentary sessions in Beijing, calling on the government to deliver on earlier promises of assistance.
He Fangmei told RFA at the time that the parents-turned-activists were hoping to use heightened media attention around the National People's Congress (NPC) meeting in early March to publicize their families' grievances.
"We want the government to finish work on a Vaccine Law, taking into account suggestions from parents like us," she said. "That includes early intervention and treatment and guarantees in the longer term."
"We also want to see the health checks we were promised for our children implemented, and proper diagnoses made," she said.
Authorities in the northern province of Hebei also detained rights activist Sun Yuanping last Friday on suspicion of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," his friend told RFA.
Sun, who is being held under administrative detention in the Shijiazhuang Detention Center, is accused of "forwarding inappropriate comments" using his Twitter account.
He had previously spoken up in support of families affected by tainted vaccines.
An employee who answered the phone at the Shijiazhuang police department on Monday declined to give details, however.
"I don't really know, because we're not the department handling this case," the employee said.
Parents who campaign are detained and beaten
President Xi Jinping demanded a thorough investigation into last year's tainted vaccine scandal at Changchun Changsheng Biotech, and promised severe punishment for those responsible.
But the authorities repeatedly detain, beat, and even "disappear" parent campaigners, who want the government to face up to its responsibilities and give the families hit by faulty vaccines compensation to help with mounting medical bills.
The Changchun incident was only the latest in a string of public health scandals surrounding fake, substandard, and expired vaccines that have had a devastating impact on the health of young children and on their immediate family.
Many parents say they were initially promised compensation and help with medical expenses, but that the assistance never materialized. Many are still seeking redress from similar scandals that occurred years ago.
Several human rights defenders working on socio-economic rights issues have been detained just days after the close of China’s third human rights review in Geneva, CHRD said.
The timing of the detentions indicates that authorities waited until after the end of the highly public scrutiny of China’s rights records at the United Nations to crack down on the activists.
This year will see a number of politically sensitive anniversaries, including the 30th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, the group said.
Reported by Tam Siu-yin for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Wang Yun for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.