(New York) - The Chinese government should mark the first anniversary of the devastating May 12, 2008, Sichuan earthquake by offering legal redress to surviving relatives, making public all information about quake-related deaths and damages, and dropping onerous requirements for media who want to report from the area, Human Rights Watch said today.
Human Rights Watch urges the Chinese government to allow relatives who lost family in the quake to freely bring lawsuits against those they believe are responsible for allegedly shoddy school construction linked to the deaths of thousands of children in the quake zone.
An estimated 70,000 people died in the May 2008 quake, many of them students whose schools collapsed. Over the past year, some parents have demanded an official inquiry into the buildings' deficiencies, a completion of DNA testing to identify quake victims, and a complete list of victims' names and ages. There are parents who have filed lawsuits alleging that faulty construction contributed to the collapse of their children's schools, but to date no courts have accepted the cases. Not only have many of these parents been harassed, detained, and in some cases kicked or punched by officials and security forces, but the government has also pressured many of the victims' families to accept one-time compensation payments in exchange for ceasing demands for a public accounting.
"Parents of student quake victims, who are trying to understand how and why their children died, deserve answers and compassion, not threats and abuse," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "Persecuting quake victims and their relatives adds cruel insult to already grievous injury."
Such harassment is occurring despite the Chinese government's specific pledge in its new National Human Rights Action Plan, published on April 13, to protect the rights of Sichuan quake victims. The National Human Rights Action Plan commits the government to "Respecting earthquake victims (and) registering the names of people who died or disappeared in the earthquake and make them known to the public." Some victims' family members suspect that the government is delaying DNA identification and victim list publication for fear that a disproportionate percentage will have been students, and that public demands for accountability will resume.
"The Chinese government should take up this important opportunity to prove it's serious about delivering on the action plan's promises to protect the rights of Sichuan earthquake victims," Richardson said.
In addition to harassing victims' family members, state security forces have also targeted individuals trying to investigate the possible causes of school collapses or compile lists of quake victims. Those individuals include:
- Huang Qi, a veteran dissident and founder of http://www.64tianwang.com/, a website dedicated to publicizing human rights abuses across China. Huang was detained on June 10, 2008 in Chengdu, while investigating allegations that shoddy construction had contributed to the collapse of schools in the earthquake. He was formally charged with "possessing state secrets" on July 18, 2008, and his trial was indefinitely postponed for undisclosed reasons in February 2009.
- Zeng Hongling, a retired university professor. After posting online critiques of building standards in the Sichuan earthquake zone, Zeng was arrested in May 2008 and faces "subversion" charges.
- Liu Shakun, a teacher. Liu was reportedly arrested and sentenced in August 2008 to one year of "re-education through labor" on the charge of "disseminating rumors and disrupting social order" for posting on-line photographs he had taken of collapsed schools in the Sichuan earthquake zone. Liu was released from a labor camp and allowed to serve the remainder of his sentence outside of custody on September 24, 2008.
- Tan Zuoren, a literary editor and environmentalist. After trying to compile a name list of children killed in the Sichuan earthquake, Tan was detained in March 2009 on suspicion of subversion.
"From the 1976 Tangshan earthquake to the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, the Chinese government has repeatedly defaulted to a strategy of obscuring public safety information and persecuting those who try to reveal it," said Richardson. "Such tactics aren't just harmful for China, they can be a potential danger to the international community as food safety scandals and outbreaks of communicable diseases can rapidly escalate from local problems to global threats."
Human Rights Watch said that in the run-up to the one-year anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake, some foreign journalists returning to document the region's reconstruction are also being obstructed by quake zone government officials and security forces.
The Chinese government won justifiable praise in the weeks immediately following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake by allowing foreign media relatively unrestricted access to the disaster zone. However, by mid-April 2008, some foreign correspondents reporting from the quake zone were noting an increase in obstruction and harassment by government officials, state security forces, and plainclothes thugs who appeared to operate at official behest. Such harassment was particularly prevalent if foreign journalists were attempting to interview bereaved parents.
On April 20, 2009, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC) issued a press release which chronicled three separate instances of "aggressive police and official interference with correspondents and their sources" in the Sichuan quake zone. As recently as April 6, 2009, government officials and security forces in the Sichuan town of Shifang physically prevented a German TV crew from filming, and subsequently detained them for five hours. Upon their release, the crew's efforts to interview the father whose child died in a collapsed school were disrupted by security forces, who detained the man outside the journalists' hotel. He was released shortly after.
On April 2, 2009, the Sichuan provincial government announced that foreign media visiting the quake zone would need to register with and receive the permission of local authorities in order to travel to and report from there. That requirement adds a new layer of bureaucracy to the operations of foreign media in the quake zone and is a potential tool for Sichuan municipal authorities to limit or deny access to foreign media. The registration requirement also violates the letter and spirit of the 2008 permanent regulation on foreign media freedoms, which permit foreign correspondents to interview any consenting interviewee without official permission.
"The Chinese government seems to have forgotten that the initial openness in 2008 not only reaped international sympathy and support, but also showed that the government could endure some degree of criticism," Richardson said. "The recent abuses of victims' family members, activists, and journalists are a step backwards."