Beijing: A Chinese court Tuesday sentenced an activist who investigated the deaths of thousands of schoolchildren in the country`s massive 2008 earthquake to five years in jail for inciting subversion of state power, the man`s lawyer said.
Attorney Pu Zhiqiang said activist Tan Zuoren was convicted and sentenced Tuesday by the Chengdu Intermediate Court. Tan`s trial in August had concluded with no ruling, during which police detained and threatened his supporters.
Tan`s supporters believe authorities were trying to silence him for his investigation into the collapse of schools in the 7.9-magnitude earthquake that struck in Sichuan province in May 2008, leaving almost 90,000 dead or missing. Tan estimated at least 5,600 students were among the dead, while a figure released by the government last May put the count at 5,335.
The charge of inciting subversion of state power was also linked to essays he wrote about the 1989 student-led demonstrations in Beijing`s Tiananmen Square that ended in a deadly military crackdown. China routinely uses such broad and vaguely defined accusations to imprison dissidents, sometimes for years.
"Tan thinks one of the reasons behind this case is that he was leading an investigation into the poorly built schools after the earthquake, which would have embarrassed the local government in Chengdu," Pu said.
Critics allege that shoddy construction, enabled by corruption, caused several schools to collapse while buildings nearby remained intact — a politically sensitive theory that the government has tried to quash, fearing it could undermine the admiration and goodwill it earned after its massive rescue effort.
But activists and parents — many of whom lost their only children in the quake — have repeatedly demanded those responsible for shoddy construction be investigated and punished. Those who`ve pressed the issue have been detained, harassed and threatened by police and thugs believed to be hired by local officials.
Pu said Tan would appeal the court`s verdict, which he said was based on a diary entry Tan had written in 2007 and a campaign last year looking at how authorities handled the 1989 Tiananmen protests.
"The court was very smart. They took out any mention of the earthquake from the verdict because they are afraid of referring to it," Pu said.