11/11/2010, 00.00
CHINA
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Arrest us, say parents of melamine-tainted milk victims

Zhao Lianhai’s conviction leads to major protest. He was found “guilty” of defending victims’ rights. Chinese authorities appear unwilling to tolerate any form of protest, but parents say they are prepared to do anything to defend their children’s rights.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The families of children poisoned by melamine-tainted milk have staged a public protest against yesterday’s conviction of Zhao Lianhai (pictured), who tried to defend their rights. Many activists and at least four fathers of sick children have demonstrated in front of Beijing's Daxing District People's Court, telling the authorities to arrest them as well. They shouted, “The government is guilty! [The government] is not taking responsibility for us!"

In 2008, baby formulas produced by a number of Chinese dairies were found to contain a toxic substance, melamine, which is an industrial chemical used in making plastic that is poisonous in humans. However, when added to substandard milk it can help it pass protein tests.

At least six children died and 300,000 got sick from drinking this tainted milk, many with major damages to the kidneys, in some cases permanently.

Zhao’s five-year son was among the victims. This prompted him to set up a website to expose the risks of melamine-tainted milk as well as push for the punishment of those responsible and compensation for families. In November 2009, he was arrested and sentenced yesterday to two years and half in prison because he had “chanted slogans and gathered illegally to stir trouble" and seriously disrupt the social order.

When the scandal initially broke out, the government said it would compensate families and cover every medical cost. Later it only offered limited compensation that fell short of actual costs.

Many courts refused to hear families’ complaints. Some lawyers who provided legal counsel to victims’ families came under heavy pressures to desist. It is clear that the authorities simply want to turn the page, even if children have permanent damages.

Zhao’s family has said however that it would pursue the fight.  Even Zhao’s son Pengrui, now five, held up a sheet of paper with the message "Daddy, come home!" on it as he waited outside the court.

“It's an attempt to suppress the tainted milk victims' human rights activities," Zhao’s lawyer Li Fangping said outside the court. He explained that both the trial judge and the prosecutor tried several times to convince Zhao to plead guilty. He added that Zhoa’s family is now in financial difficulties, as a result of his imprisonment.

For Peng Jian, another of Zhao's lawyers, the conviction is “like saying people shouldn't care about social justice and responsibility.”

“Zhao was helping and saving thousands of child victims and their parents, but he himself was framed as guilty," said Zhu Fuxiang, a demonstrator.

Xiang Qingyu, from Lianyungang (Jiangsu), was another demonstrator outside the court. His five-year-old son drank Shengyuan brand melamine-tainted milk for more than a year, and now suffers from kidney stones and has to undergo expensive medical care. For him, Zhao campaigned “not for personal reasons but only for the right to survive of thousands of children.”

“What Zhao has done was for thousands of children who are still suffering,” Xiang added. “The harsh sentence won't scare us. To protect our children, we will never back off. We are willing to go to jail with Zhao.”

Zhou Xiong, whose son also suffered kidney stones, told Cable TV that he would fight for the victims of melamine-tainted milk even if it meant years in prison.

"When I heard it [the conviction], I really couldn't accept it,” said Liu Linna, a human rights activist. “Zhao is only protecting the bottom line: our right to survive and to be healthy. It's such a basic right.”

Internet users expressed even more anger at the sentence. On Twitter, one person, Zhang Hui, wrote, “The milk powder companies poisoned the milk and the legal system poisons society.”

For Wang Youjin, professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, “The authorities are afraid that Zhao Lianhai will be a rallying point for all the parents whose children were affected by the milk scandal”. They fear that people might “stage a collective protest, and destabilise the regime.”

He doubts Zhao’s appeal would succeed in reversing the original conviction.

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