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China quake dissident gets 3 years Add to ...

An advocate for the parents of children killed in last year's earthquake in China's Sichuan province was sentenced to three years in prison for what a judge ruled was illegally obtaining state secrets. The sentence is seen as a warning shot for those still trying to investigate the corruption and substandard construction believed responsible for collapsing schools.

Huang Qi, a well-known rights activist and blogger who had investigated the collapse of shoddily built school buildings in the earthquake, was arrested in June, 2008, after giving advice to parents trying to sue local authorities for their role in the disaster. The verdict was just announced Monday - the second such sentence for a prominent Chinese dissident within days of U.S. President Barack Obama wrapping up his first official visit to China. Mr. Obama was criticized for not being more vocal in his criticism of China's human-rights record during his visit.

Official government reports counted more than 5,000 schoolchildren among the estimated 80,000 killed in the May 12, 2008, earthquake. In many cases, the walls of schools collapsed in on the children while surrounding buildings remained intact, in what was bitterly dubbed by parents as "tofu" construction.

Amnesty International said Mr. Huang was prosecuted based on two city-government documents found in his home; Mr. Huang's wife, Zeng Li, has said any government materials he used were freely available to the public.

"State secrets charges have become the weapon of choice for the authorities when they are prosecuting cases when they can't really find anything that is against the law," said Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based senior Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. "It also reflects the fact that what motivates the prosecutor and authorities was the desire to silence independent and critical voices on the handling of the earthquake. … They wanted to keep control of the power and prevent embarrassment."

The sentence was read out in a 10-minute hearing in a Chengdu courtroom. Ms. Zeng was reported to have been allowed into the courtroom to hear the verdict, though she was not permitted to attend the trial.

"This is clearly revenge because he helped parents who lost their children during the Sichuan earthquake," Ms. Zeng told reporters afterward. "They still won't say what the specific charge is, not even at the verdict. They just spoke of documents related to a certain matter."

Mr. Huang's lawyer, Ding Xikui, told news agencies his client would appeal the sentence.

Mr. Huang was already known to Chinese authorities for running the Tianwang Human Rights Centre, as well as a website calling for greater political freedoms, and has already served several years in prison for "inciting subversion" - the court's term for his criticism of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. His friends and allies say he has a serious health condition stemming from his earlier prison term.

Mr. Huang is one of two high-profile Chinese activists arrested and tried after assisting parents in the isolated Wenchuan region of Sichuan province that was the earthquake's epicentre. The other, Tan Zuoren, is charged with inciting subversion of state power for calling for a complete list of students who died as well as further investigation into the construction of the schools, and is expected to face a verdict shortly.

Prominent Chinese artist and designer Ai Weiwei was beaten by local police when he tried earlier this year to testify in Mr. Tan's favour, and said the verdict for Mr. Huang has left him concerned for his own future. Mr. Ai has been kept under surveillance for trying to compile a list of the dead and missing schoolchildren.

"I heard this news and I think it's outrageous. … I think this shows the weakness of today's concept of justice and fairness in society," Mr. Ai said Monday. "I'm afraid this will set up some kind of example for other areas, to really expand [authorities' power]on how to put more pressure on opposition."

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