A Chinese activist who investigated whether shoddy construction caused the deaths of thousands of children when their schools collapsed in a 2008 earthquake was released yesterday after finishing a five-year jail term, his lawyer said.
Writer and campaigner Tan Zuoren (譚作人) was heading home to Chengdu, the capital of southwestern Sichuan Province, his lawyer Pu Zhiqiang (浦志強) said by telephone.
“He was released today. Now he’s on the way home,” Pu said.
Tan, 59, was sentenced for “inciting subversion of state power” in connection with several articles he published online about authorities’ brutal crushing of the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests.
He was arrested while investigating the deaths of thousands of children whose schools collapsed during a huge earthquake in Sichuan.
The magnitude 8 disaster in May 2008 left more than 80,000 people dead or missing.
Schools bore the brunt of the disaster, with 7,000 badly damaged and 5,335 students left dead or missing, according to authorities, fueling angry accusations from parents that corruption had allowed substandard construction work.
Pu, a prominent Beijing-based rights lawyer who represented Tan at his trial in 2009, said the activist may continue to face surveillance and restrictions, especially during sensitive times.
“The country owes him five years,” Pu said on Wednesday.
“First, this was a wrongful conviction. Second, given his circumstances his sentence was plenty long — the maximum sentence was five years, and that’s what the court gave him,” Pu said.
“Third, he served the entire sentence, not one day less,” the lawyer added.
An appeal in Tan’s case was rejected in June 2010 after a hearing that “only lasted 12 minutes,” Pu said at the time.
Rights groups denounced that ruling, with a top Asia official from Amnesty International calling it a politically motivated outcome of “a grossly unfair legal process.”
Searches for Tan’s name on Sina Weibo, a Chinese microblogging site, were blocked yesterday, with users receiving a message that “according to relevant laws, regulations and policies, results for ‘Tan Zuoren’ are not displayed.”
Tan’s supporters quickly spread the news of his release through Twitter, which is blocked by Chinese authorities, but some people access through virtual private networks.