BEIJING — A veteran dissident was sentenced to three years in prison after casting a spotlight on poorly built schools that collapsed and killed thousands of children during China's massive earthquake last year – an apparent government attempt to squelch such information.
Huang Qi, founder of a human rights Web site, had been charged with illegally possessing state secrets, his wife Zeng Li said Monday by telephone. His detention in June 2008 came after several posts on his blog that criticized the government's response to the massive earthquake that struck Sichuan province a month earlier and killed about 90,000 people.
Huang, 46, had alleged that state-controlled media provided skewed reports on relief efforts and accused the government of obstructing the work of non-governmental organizations responding to the disaster, according to reports at the time by Paris-based monitoring group Reporters Without Borders.
"The government is using its propaganda to portray itself as a savior to little avail," the group quoted him as saying in one Web posting.
Huang had also spoken to foreign media outlets about parents' accusations that their children had been crushed in badly built schools. The government has attempted to quash such complaints, fearing the contentious issue could undermine the admiration and goodwill it earned for the massive rescue effort it led, boosted by volunteers and international aid.
But activists and parents – many of whom lost their only children in the quake – have repeatedly demanded those responsible for the shoddy construction be punished and called for an inquiry. Those seeking to press the issue have been detained, harassed and threatened by police and thugs believed to be in the employ of local officials.
Huang's sentencing Monday appeared to be one more attempt at silencing the discussion.
Officials contend the sheer force of the 7.9-magnitude quake alone caused school buildings to collapse, ignoring evidence showing that schools were often the only ones to crumble in many parts of the quake zone while nearby buildings survived.
In May, just days before the one-year anniversary of the quake, China gave the first official tally of students' deaths from the temblor, saying 5,335 were killed or remained missing.
Zeng, Huang's wife, said the Wuhou district court in the western city of Chengdu gave no details about the state secrets charge, an ill-defined accusation often used by Communist leaders to clamp down on dissent and imprison activists. Because of the charge, authorities were able to bar Huang from seeing his lawyer and forbid the photocopying of court documents, rights group Amnesty International said.
Zeng said the court refused to issue a written account of the sentence, leaving her at least temporarily without the necessary documentation to file an appeal.
"And we definitely plan to appeal," said Zeng, who was unable to speak with Huang after the sentencing because he was led directly from the court.
Calls to the court and Huang's lawyers rang unanswered Monday.
The sentence could give grist to critics of President Barack Obama, who faulted him for not being more outspoken on human rights during his visit to China last week. While Obama raised the topics of universal rights and Internet freedom, he largely avoided the appearance of lecturing his hosts over such issues, something Beijing has responded to in past with indignation.
In a statement, Amnesty International called for Huang's immediate release, saying he was being punished merely for helping illuminate the tribulations of families whose children died in the earthquake.
"He should never have been detained in the first place and should be released immediately," the group's Asia-Pacific director, Sam Zarifi, was quoted as saying in the statement.
Amnesty said several supporters who asked to attend the sentencing were turned away and beaten by police who ringed the courthouse. It gave no details, and their identities were not immediately known.
Huang has already served a five-year prison sentence on subversion charges linked to politically sensitive articles posted on his Web site.
Since his release in 2005, Huang has supported a wide range of causes, including aiding families of those killed in the 1989 military crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square and publicizing the complaints of farmers involved in land disputes with authorities.