A Chinese activist who was investigating whether shoddy construction caused school collapses in the massive 2008 Sichuan earthquake was jailed Tuesday for five years for subversion, his lawyer said.
Environmental campaigner and writer Tan Zuoren was convicted of "inciting subversion of state power" over his criticisms of China's handling of the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, said one of his lawyers, Pu Zhiqiang.
Tan published several articles on the Internet about the government’s brutal quashing of the pro-democracy protests.
But he was arrested last year as he was probing the deaths of thousands of children when their schools collapsed in the May 2008 quake in the south western province of Sichuan, which left nearly 88,000 people dead or missing.
Rights watchdog Amnesty International has said, citing local sources, that Tan’s independent investigation was likely the real reason for his detention.
"He was sentenced to five years in prison for inciting subversion of state power," said the lawyer, Pu.
"There were no charges related to the quake. All of the proceedings were linked to 4 June 4 1989," Pu told AFP by telephone.
The lawyer said the verdict from the court in the Sichuan provincial capital Chengdu was read out in less than 10 minutes.
Court officials were not immediately available for comment.
Tan, who pleaded not guilty, plans to appeal, his lawyer said, describing the court's decision as one which "avoids the difficult issues and just focuses on the minor ones".
Schools bore the brunt of the Sichuan quake, with thousands collapsing on top of students, fuelling angry charges from parents that corruption had led to shoddy construction.
About 200 of Tan's supporters gathered outside the courthouse to await the verdict, one of them, Yang Licai, told AFP by telephone.
Tan's wife and other relatives were not allowed to attend the court hearing, Yang said.
Amnesty condemned the verdict, calling it unfair and demanding Tan’s release.
"His arrest, unfair trial and now the guilty verdict are further disturbing examples of how the Chinese authorities use vague and over-broad laws to silence and punish dissenting voices," said Roseann Rife, the group's deputy director for the Asia-Pacific.
"The Chinese authorities cannot continue to claim that they are dealing with human rights defenders according to the law when they violate so many of their own legal procedures in cases like this."
The International Federation of Journalists also condemned the sentence, and said it was "appalled" by what it said were efforts to keep journalists from reporting on the verdict.
The media rights group said police detained nine Hong Kong journalists and prevented them from reporting outside the courthouse. Two of them were injured, the IFJ statement said, without providing details.
Freedom of expression denied
IFJ General Secretary Aidan White said moves "to block independent reporting on sensitive issues grossly undermine China's Constitution, which stipulates that all citizens have the right to freedom of expression and a fair trial".
At Tan's trial last August, controversial Chinese artist Ai Weiwei - who also investigated the quake school deaths - said he was detained and beaten by police who blocked him from testifying on Tan's behalf.
Ai underwent surgery in Germany the following month to relieve pressure on his brain from a blood clot which he said was the result of the police beating in Chengdu.