Reporting from Beijing — An activist who was investigating the role shoddy school construction played in the deaths of more than 5,000 children in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake was given a three-year prison sentence Monday on charges of possessing state secrets.
Huang Qi, 46, a veteran activist and blogger, is the most prominent of more than a dozen people who were arrested for demanding investigations into construction standards after the magnitude 7.9 temblor. Others included prominent artists, former teachers and parents who lost their only children in the earthquake.
Huang is a veteran activist who had long irritated Chinese authorities by writing about taboo subjects, such as the 1989 crackdown at Tiananmen Square and the persecution of practitioners of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement. He'd previously served time in prison.
After the May 12 earthquake, Huang rented a truck and distributed water and instant noodles to people left homeless. He also organized bereaved parents who were questioning why so many schools collapsed when Communist Party and government buildings nearby remained intact. He was arrested less than a month after the quake -- a week after posting an article on his website about school construction standards.
Huang's wife, Zeng Li, told reporters Monday in the Sichuan capital, Chengdu, where the sentencing took place, that her husband was convicted of illegal possession of municipal documents, but that she wasn't told what the papers were or even which municipality they were from.
U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman Jr. spoke to Chinese officials about Huang's case during the run-up to President Obama's visit to China last week, according to embassy spokeswoman Susan Stevenson. It was unclear whether the president himself brought up the subject.
Some Chinese human rights activists have criticized Obama for not being more forceful on their behalf.
"Since the beginning of the financial crisis, the world has been intimidated by China, whether it is about economics, culture or human rights. This is a sad situation that I saw during Obama's visit," said Yang Licai, who volunteered to tally the number of children killed in collapsing schools. Yang said that he and others involved with the quake "were merely people with a conscience trying to find out the truth of what happened and help China avoid the same mistakes."
Amnesty International said in a statement Monday that the Chinese government prohibited witnesses from testifying at Huang's trial and restricted his access to a lawyer under the grounds that "state secrets" were involved.
"China's state secrets legislation needs to urgently be reviewed. These laws are used extensively to retroactively penalize lawful human rights activities and restrict freedom of expression," said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific director.