By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 10, 2010; 10:45 PM
BEIJING - A Chinese court on Wednesday imposed a 21/2-year prison sentence on a man who became an activist after his son experienced kidney problems linked to contaminated baby formula.
Zhao Lianhai was convicted of inciting public disorder by setting up a Web site to help other parents with sick children share information and seek compensation, and by organizing protests.
Zhao's attorneys and others said the sentence appeared to indicate that China's ruling Communist Party remains intolerant of critics - including AIDS activists, environmentalists and others well outside the political realm - and that it will be particularly tough on those who use the Internet to organize others around a cause.
The baby formula scandal, which swept the country in 2008, was the worst in a string of tainted-food cases in China, killing at least six infants and leaving 300,000 seriously ill. The formula had been contaminated with melamine, an industrial plastic, to make it bulkier - which increased profits for the manufacturer. But melamine can also cause kidney stones and kidney disease in young children.
China responded by prosecuting officials of the Sanlu dairy company, some local government workers and farmers involved in the contamination. Several were sentenced to long prison terms, and three people were executed. But families said the government's response and compensation were inadequate, and Zhao emerged as their champion and public face.
Zhao was working for an advertising agency when his son, Zhao Pengrui, now 5, became sick. Zhao set up a Web site to help families with affected children share information and press the government to be more accountable.
He organized meetings, gave media interviews and held silent protests outside a dairy factory and a court.
Zhao was arrested in November 2009. On Wednesday, his family members went to the Beijing court to learn of his sentence, which his attorneys later described as unusually harsh. About 20 supporters, who had heard the news of the pending verdict on Twitter, gathered outside, some wearing yellow ribbons.
About 8:50 p.m., Zhao's wife and mother came out of the courthouse, eyes brimming. His wife cried, "It's unfair."
Zhao's supporters shouted, "It's the government that committed a crime for not protecting our rights and our health," and "Zhao Lianhai is a hero."
Peng Jian, one of Zhao's attorneys, said that when the sentence was read, Zhao shouted continuously, "I'm innocent, the verdict is unjust," and, "I will go on a hunger strike until I'm set free again." He then began ripping off his prison clothes and throwing them on the floor until police carried him away.
Peng said Zhao's attorneys were not able to speak or call any witnesses. "My expectation was one year at the most," Peng said. "Such a verdict has no factual or legal basis." He said the verdict and sentence had "trampled on civil rights and ignored public opinion."
Li Fangping, another of Zhao's attorneys, said the sentence was largely political, meant as "a kind of suppression and deterrence" to the family members affected by the tainted-milk scandal who were exercising a "normal, rational and legitimate" right to petition the government. "The impact on society will be great," he said.
The lawyers said they plan to appeal.
Zhou Xiong, a migrant worker whose 3-year-old son suffers from kidney disease because of the tainted milk, was one of those who came to the Beijing courthouse to show support. He said he borrowed money to get there, just as he has borrowed heavily to pay for his son's treatment because the government's compensation was far too little. He wants the government to provide free lifetime medical care for his son.
"I respect Zhao Lianhai because he has done so much for us," Zhou said. "I feel angry, helpless and hopeless. Even a capable and eloquent man like Zhao Lianhai has been put in jail. What hope is left for people like us?"
The verdict comes at a sensitive time in China, with the country's communist rulers appearing intent on quashing any form of public opposition. The sensitivity was heightened in Beijing last month when Liu Xiaobo, a jailed writer and dissident, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his advocacy of more political freedom.
Since the prize was announced, several lawyers and activists, including Liu's wife, have been placed under house arrest and in some cases subjected to strict surveillance, advocates say. Several activists have disappeared, and others have been prevented from leaving the country for fear they might travel to Oslo for the Dec. 10 Nobel Prize ceremony.
China's Foreign Ministry has also warned foreign governments and embassies in Norway of unspecified "consequences" if they show support for Liu Xiaobo or attend the ceremony.
Against that backdrop, British Prime Minister David Cameron, who is leading a trade mission to China this week, waded into the touchy subject of human rights in a speech at Peking University. Saying he was not trying to "lecture or hector" China, Cameron - the first major Western leader to visit China since the Nobel Prize announcement - made a pointed critique before an audience of students.
"The rise in economic freedom in China in recent years had been hugely beneficial to China and to the world," he said. "I hope in time this will lead to a greater political opening, because I'm convinced that the best guarantor of prosperity and stability is for economic and political progress to go in step together."
Staff researcher Liu Liu contributed to this report.