BEIJING — A father who organized a support group for other parents whose children were sickened in one of China's worst food safety scandals was convicted and sentenced Wednesday to 2 1/2 years in prison for inciting social disorder, his lawyer said.
Zhao Lianhai had pushed for greater official accountability and compensation for victims and their families after the 2008 scandal that shocked China. His sentence appeared particularly severe because the case related to a public safety incident that the embarrassed leadership had pledged to tackle in a bid to restore consumer confidence.
"We'd expected it to be much less than that. It is such a harsh sentence," lawyer Li Fangping said. "The crimes he was accused of were nothing more than what regular citizens would do to defend their rights."
Zhao, a Beijing resident whose young son was among the nearly 300,000 children sickened by melamine-tainted milk, vowed to appeal and began a hunger strike to protest the verdict, Li said.
Zhao set up an online forum to share information about the poisonings in 2008 after his son, then 3, was diagnosed with kidney stones.
"When he heard that his sentence was two and a half years, he was appalled, and he pushed away a sign that was in front of him, and said, 'I'm not guilty. I want to appeal.' He tried to remove his prison uniform, and refused to be handcuffed," Li said.
Amnesty International condemned the sentence.
"We are appalled that the authorities have imprisoned a man the Chinese public rightly view as a protector of children, not a criminal," said Catherine Baber, the human rights group's Asia-Pacific deputy director.
Zhao, a former reporter and media advertising salesman, has been jailed since he was taken away by police in November 2009.
His sentence appears to be part of a trend of growing intolerance for government critics and independent social activists. Environmentalists, AIDS activists and lawyers who took on sensitive cases have disappeared, been locked up, or otherwise harassed, while this year's Nobel Peace Prize recipient, dissident writer Liu Xiaobo, is serving an 11-year prison sentence for subversion handed down after he co-authored a call for widespread reform of the authoritarian, one-party political system.
Li said prosecutors leveled three charges against Zhao: That he organized a gathering of a dozen parents of sick children at a restaurant, held a paper sign in front of a court and factory involved in the scandal as a protest, and gave media interviews in a public place.
Six children died and hundreds of thousands were sickened by baby formula tainted with melamine, which can cause kidney stones and kidney failure. The industrial chemical, used in the manufacture of plastics and fertilizer, was added to watered-down milk to increase profits and fool inspectors testing for protein.
Several dairy industry figures were prosecuted and punished, including three people given the death penalty.
The general manager and chairwoman of Sanlu, the company at the heart of the scandal, was given a life sentence. Dozens of officials, dairy executives and farmers have been punished for allowing the contamination to take place.