Chinese rights activist given 3-year sentence

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 24, 2009

BEIJING -- A veteran Chinese human rights campaigner who challenged the central government over the faulty construction of school buildings that collapsed during last year's Sichuan earthquake was sentenced Monday to three years in prison, on a charge of possessing secret state documents.

The sentencing of Huang Qi comes less than a week after President Obama made an official visit to Beijing and appealed to China's Communist rulers to accept that "certain fundamental human rights" are universal.

Human rights lawyers and campaigners said the tough sentence for the 46-year-old Huang -- the maximum penalty allowable under Chinese law -- was a sign that Chinese leaders were in no mood to make concessions on human rights and might even be engaged in a new crackdown targeting lawyers and prominent dissidents.

"The Chinese authorities chose this time on purpose to sentence him," said Huang's wife, Zeng Li, 43, who was in the court when the sentence was handed down. "They were waiting until the special time of Obama's visit had passed."

The government stepped up surveillance of other prominent human rights activists ahead of and during Obama's visit, stopping some from leaving their homes and harassing and briefly detaining others.

One lawyer, Jiang Tianyong, described in a telephone interview how he was taken in for questioning by police Thursday, while walking his 7-year-old daughter to school, and detained for 13 hours before being released. The previous day, Jiang said, he had tried to approach the U.S. Embassy because he had heard that Obama might meet with human rights lawyers. But he was taken back to his house by police.

Jiang expressed disappointment that Obama had not met with human rights activists during his trip.

"There are a bunch of people in Chinese civil society who have enough courage to talk with Obama about the human rights issue in China," Jiang said. "But Obama is not decisive enough or doesn't have enough willpower to talk with the civil society."

Despite his mention of "universal rights," Obama, in the view of rights activists, "didn't strike as hard of a tone on human rights as some of us had hoped for," said Sam Zarifi, the Asia-Pacific director for the London-based group Amnesty International. "It's tough to wag your finger about human rights when your hand is stretched out for more money."

Huang, who ran the Tianwang, or Sky Net, Human Rights Center in Chengdu, in Sichuan province, had used his Web site to make an appeal on behalf of five family members whose children died in a collapsed middle school in the May 2008 earthquake. He called for an investigation into shoddy construction practices that may have left the school vulnerable, and he asked that officials who were responsible be punished.

About 90,000 people were killed in the earthquake, according to official estimates, including 5,335 students who died when their school buildings or dormitories collapsed, often while other buildings around them remained intact. Some say the number of student fatalities was even higher.

Huang's wife and his lawyer, Mo Shaoping, called the charge of possessing state secrets a fabrication. Mo said the documents in question were rules for government agencies in handling petitions from citizens. They had been published in newspapers and were readily available on the Internet, and were taken from the hard drive of a shared computer in Huang's office. Mo and Huang's wife said they were concerned about Huang's deteriorating health in prison.

Huang was arrested in 2000 and sentenced in February 2003 for "subversion" after seeking redress for family members of those who disappeared after the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989. He was released in 2005 and immediately went back to his activist work.

Researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.

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