(New York) - The Chinese government should cancel the impending criminal trials of Huang Qi and Tan Zuoren and release them in the absence of any credible allegation they endangered state security through their investigation into the collapse of schools in the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Human Rights Watch said today.
Huang is scheduled for trial August 5, and Tan on August 12, on respective charges of revealing state "secrets" and "subversion." The Chinese government has long relied on state-secrets and subversion laws to silence critics who exercise their constitutionally guaranteed rights of expression.
"These trials are not about a reasonable application of the law, but about silencing government critics whose work has considerable public benefit and sympathy," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "The government is likely seeking to squelch those who cause it embarrassment, but in the process it is undermining domestic and international confidence in its ability to cope in a transparent way with natural disasters."
Huang Qi is a veteran activist and founder of http://www.64tianwang.com/, a website dedicated to publicizing human rights abuses across China. Police detained Huang Qi on June 10, 2008, in the Sichuan city of Chengdu and formally charged him with "possession of state secrets" on July 18, 2008. Those charges stem from Huang's investigation into allegations that shoddy construction contributed to the collapse of schools in the Sichuan earthquake zone. Human Rights Watch said that China's state-secrets laws defy international standards by employing overly broad definitions of "secrets," requiring official approval for suspects' access to their lawyers during the investigation phase, and barring public access to state-secrets trials. Penalties for state-secrets convictions range from a minimum five-year prison term to the death penalty.
Tan Zuoren is a literary editor and environmental activist. Police detained Tan on March 28, 2009, and officially lodged subversion charges on April 28, 2009. The charges against Tan relate to his compilation of a list of children killed in the Sichuan earthquake and to his alleged efforts to organize a public commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the June 1989 killing of unarmed civilians in Beijing and other cities, an officially taboo topic in China. "Incitement to subvert state power" is a charge at odds with freedom of expression as protected under international law because it criminalizes peaceful dissent. Tan faces a prison sentence of up to five years if convicted.
"The Chinese government has a shameful track record of abusing state-secrets and subversion laws to cut off the right to free expression," said Richardson.
The prosecution of Huang Qi and Tan Zuoren appears to be part of a wider pattern of state repression of individuals who challenge the government's Sichuan quake death toll and who seek answers for why more than 7,000 classrooms collapsed in the disaster. These prosecutions violate Chinese citizens' rights to freedom of expression and information, guaranteed under international law as well as China's constitution. The action against critics is also in direct contravention of China's first-ever national human rights action plan, issued on April 13, 2009, which 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."
Instead, the Chinese government has demonstrated intolerance for public demands for an independent inquiry into the reasons for the high numbers of schoolchildren who died in the Sichuan earthquake. The Chinese government has announced that of the estimated 86,000 people killed or missing in the Sichuan earthquake, only 5,335 were schoolchildren. However, some of the victims' parents believe that shoddy construction of public schools likely caused a higher death toll. Renowned Chinese architect Ai Weiwei - the designer of Beijing's iconic Olympic "Bird's Nest" stadium - has initiated an independent survey of the student deaths; he announced in May that he expected his research will suggest a death toll of more than 6,000.
Chinese courts have refused to accept lawsuits alleging faulty school construction in the earthquake zone, while many parents of those victims have come under pressure from Sichuan officials to accept one-time compensation payments in exchange for dropping their lawsuits. Outspoken parents of student earthquake victims, along with foreign journalists who have tried to interview them, have been harassed, detained, and in some cases kicked or punched by officials and security forces. Ai Weiwei has been harassed by officials for his efforts to collect and publish the names of the students killed in the Sichuan earthquake. Officials have temporarily detained some of his more than 50 volunteers, confiscated interviews with bereaved parents, and shut down in May 2009 the blog on which Ai listed Sichuan earthquake student victims.
"There is no evidence to suggest that Huang and Tan did anything more than embarrass the Chinese government," said Richardson. "And that is no crime."