Submission to UN on Zhao Lianhai – December 2, 2010

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Communiqué on Detention of Chinese Citizen Zhao Lianhai for Advocating on Behalf of Victims of Tainted Milk Powder Scandal

To: Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food

 

CC: Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders

 

Working Group on Arbitrary Detention

 

Chinese Human Rights Defenders would like to bring to your attention the case of Chinese activist Zhao Lianhai (赵连海). Like hundreds of thousands of other parents, Mr. Zhao endured the agony of watching his son fall ill after drinking milk tainted with melamine, an industrial chemical, in 2008. He decided to act, organizing parents through the online discussion group “Kidney Stone Babies”, a website he founded. His aim was to share information about the tainted milk powder scandal, assist parents seeking compensation for their children’s health problems, and draw attention to the problem of food contamination and lack of oversight. In response, the Chinese government detained him in November 2009, and one year later, in November of 2010, sentenced him to two and a half years in prison for “creating a disturbance.” Full details of his case are included below.

Mr. Zhao’s case demonstrates the Chinese government’s bureaucratic approach to food safety regulation: rather than encouraging civil society efforts to identify or respond to problems, they insist solely on an inefficient and often corrupt food safety apparatus. Rather than encouraging families affected by unsafe food to seek justice through the court system, they block lawsuits and detain organizers like Mr. Zhao. Until the Chinese government allows members of civil society to take part in the oversight of China’s food supply, there is little hope that it can ensure its citizens the right to safe and adequate food. This case also demonstrates that the lack of free press and freedom of association and assembly hinders any civil society efforts in supervising the implementation of regulations on food safety.

Case Details:

Mr. ZHAO Lianhai (赵连海)

Date of Birth: May 21, 1972

Hometown: Kaifeng City, Henan Province

Household Registry: Daxing District, Beijing

Currently detained in the Daxing District Detention Center, Beijing.

Mr. Zhao founded a website, Kidney Stone Babies (http://www.jieshibaobao.com/) as an information bulletin, a discussion group, and a platform for organizing families affected  by the melamine-laced milk powder scandal of 2008. Hundreds of thousands, and perhaps more, children developed kidney stones or were otherwise sickened as a result of drinking milk made from milk-power which had been laced with melamine, an industrial chemical. At least six children died as a result. Mr. Zhao’s own son, Pengrui, was among those sickened. Melamine, an industrial chemical, was added to milk powder by dairy companies in order to artificially boost the protein content of their product.

Kidney Stone Babies was designed to collect information about the scandal, including the number of children affected and the possible health effects of consuming melamine. It was also designed to allow parents to organize more effectively to seek compensation and push for official accountability. Mr. Zhao urged parents to reject the government-sponsored compensation plan, on the grounds that parents were not consulted prior to the decision, the amount of compensation being offered was insufficient, and because the plan decreed that medical expenses after a child turns 18 would not be covered—and the long-term health effects of consuming melamine are unknown. He also helped organize meetings and demonstrations, and gave interviews to the media to draw attention to the scandal, all of which were presented as evidence of his “crime” in court.

Mr. Zhao was criminally detained on November 13, 2009, and formally arrested for “creating a disturbance” on December 17 of the same year. He was tried in a closed court on March 30, 2010, and sentenced to two and a half years in prison for “creating a disturbance” by the Daxing District Court in Beijing.  The trial was overdue. His lawyer Li Fangping said his detention before trial “far exceeded” the legally stipulated time limits for announcing a verdict.

Following his conviction, Mr. Zhao threw down his detainee uniform and announced he would protest the verdict by going on a hunger strike. He also stated he would appeal his conviction. However, on November 22, the final day on which he could file an appeal, Zhao’s lawyers Li Fangping and Peng Jian received a note allegedly signed by Zhao stating he would no longer retain their representation. Zhao did not file an appeal. Some have speculated that Zhao was pressured into dropping his appeal and firing his lawyers in exchange for release on medical parole; furthermore, it is not known whether Zhao’s signature was forged, or whether he was coerced into signing by officials. His family has not been able to visit with him since his conviction. At the time of writing, Zhao remains detained at Daxing Detention Center in Beijing. Zhao’s home in Beijing’s Daxing District has been surrounded by police in recent days, and all contact with his wife has been cut off. Lawyers Li and Peng have been under tight surveillance and restriction of movement in recent days, and legal scholar Xu Zhiyong has been threatened with similar measures for publicizing information about Zhao’s appeal.

The Chinese government’s handling of Mr. Zhao’s case is clear retaliation for his efforts to organize aggrieved parents to push for greater accountability, legal remedies, and reform to the food safety system. It demonstrates that Chinese officials are more concerned with quelling grassroots calls for reform than they are with transparently handling food safety and inspection issues.

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