A high-profile Chinese government critic said he and 11 others were detained by police in a hotel yesterday to prevent them from attending the trial of an activist who investigated the deaths of schoolchildren in last year’s earthquake.
Avant-garde artist Ai Weiwei (艾未未) said police in the southwestern city of Chengdu also roughed up him and one of the other supporters who had traveled to the city to try to attend the trial of Tan Zuoren (譚作人), an activist charged with subversion.
The charges Tan faces appear to be linked to his quake investigation as well as essays he wrote about the 1989 student-led demonstrations in Tiananmen Square that ended in a deadly military crackdown. Beijing routinely uses the charge of subversion to imprison dissidents for years.
Tan, 55, denied all charges during yesterday’s trial at the Chengdu Intermediate Court, which concluded at midday after about three hours with no immediate ruling, his lawyer Pu Zhiqiang (蒲志強) said.
Following the 7.9-magnitude earthquake in Sichuan last year, Tan tried to investigate the collapse of school buildings in the quake and the number of schoolchildren killed, estimating at least 5,600 students were victims.
Critics allege that shoddy construction, enabled by corruption, caused several schools to collapse while buildings nearby remained intact — a politically sensitive theory that the government has tried to quash.
Tan’s wife and one of his daughters were allowed into the courtroom, although his brother and other daughter were not, Pu said.
Footage from Hong Kong Cable TV showed several police officers and vehicles stationed near the court in Chengdu.
The broadcaster said dozens of relatives of the quake victims gathered outside the court and wanted to go in to support Tan but were stopped by police.
Pu said that inside the courtroom, his requests to call on three witnesses, including the artist Ai, as well as to show video evidence were rejected.
Ai said he decided to try to go to the court to support Tan, but four police officers carrying guns and batons barged into his hotel room at 3am yesterday to take him away.
One of them struck him on his right cheek when he questioned them, he said, while another supporter was also roughed up.
“They said, ‘If we need, we can beat you to death,’” Ai said in a telephone interview from the hotel that police took him and the other supporters to, not far from the court.
About 20 officers guarded them, but did not give a reason for their detention, Ai said.
“It’s quite obvious that they just don’t want us to go to Tan Zuoren’s trial,” he said. “They’re showing less and less respect for the rights of citizens and for the rule of law.”
Calls to the Chengdu public security bureau rang unanswered.
Amnesty International urged the Chinese authorities to drop the cases against Tan and another earthquake activist Huang Qi (黃琦), who last week was tried for state secrets.
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