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    » 11/12/2010, 00.00

    CHINA

    Zhao Lianhai, an unlikely hero for children poisoned by melamine-tainted milk



    When he found out that his son was suffering from kidney problems caused by melamine-tainted milk, he quit his job to defend the rights of the victims. He “didn’t want to betray other parents,” his wife said at a time when the government was making generous offers on the condition that he desist. Now she and their children are on hard times, surviving thanks to anonymous donations.

    Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Zhao Pengrui (pictured with his mother) went to school this morning despite the fact that his father, Zhao Lianhai, was sentenced on Wednesday to two and half years in prison for defending his and other children’s right to health. His mother Li Xuemei did not want him to miss kindergarten.

    Until two years ago, Zhao Lianhai led a quiet life, with a good salary of 5-6,000 yuan per month. He was not involved in fighting for democracy or human rights, he was not fighting at all, not until that is, he found out that his son Pengrui was among the 300,000 children poisoned by milk formula tainted by melamine, a chemical substance normally used in making plastic but used by dairy companies to fake higher protein contents.

    Reeling from the worldwide scandal and mounting protests, Beijing was initially all generosity with pledges of free medical care and compensation for the sick children. Afterwards, money offers started to dwindle, reaching the point that in many cases they did not cover emergency medical expenses.

    Faced with claims for redress, many judges simply dismissed the applications, saying that they could not rule in civil cases when the authorities were still conducting their investigations into the matter.

    A number of officials in some dairy companies were tried, convicted and sentenced, two to death, but as most analysts point out, no company or food safety official has ever been tried.

    Zhao quit his job instead to defend the rights of the children and the parents caught up in the affair. He set up a website to provide information to those affected and to coordinate their action. Told threateningly by the authorities to desist, he was arrested almost a year ago for stirring up trouble and “disrupting the public order”.

    His wife, Li Xuemei, has now been left with their two children, a five-year boy and a one-year girl, living in her mother-in-law’s 60 m2 flat, outside Beijing's South Fifth Ring Road. Since her husband’s arrest, the family has survived on her mother-in-law’s 2,000-yuan pension.

    After Zhao began his campaign, the local district offered to pay for his son’s medical treatment, and provide him with a good job, if he stopped. However, “We had to keep up the work after seeing so many suffering children, and we didn't want to betray other parents," his wife told the South China Morning Post.

    Small donations from online friends, and anonymous supporters, provide additional money for her and her family.

    After Zhao announced at his sentencing hearing that he would go a hunger strike, his lawyer Peng Jian also began a three-day hunger strike in solidarity with his client. Zhao’s wife Xuemei said she would have done the same but had to remain healthy to take care of their children.

    Since Zhao attracted media attention, Li’s mobile phone has been bugged. At the start of the year, the authorities also installed a new surveillance camera in front of the building where she lives.

    Through her mother-in-law, the authorities have urged her not to speak with the media. However, "I won't do what they have asked," she said. "I am not scared of going to jail, where I don't need to worry about what to eat.”

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    See also

    11/11/2010 CHINA
    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.

    17/11/2011 CHINA
    Hundreds of children still suffering from kidney stones caused by melamine-tainted milk
    Privately paid tests show that, three years after the scandal broke, children still suffer from kidney stones, blood in urine and overall poor health. The government has banned hospitals, doctors and lawyers to help families seek compensation.

    10/11/2010 CHINA
    Man who criticised authorities over tainted milk is convicted
    A Chinese court sentences Zhao Lianhai to two and half years in prison for setting up a website to collect information about tainted milk-related dangers. Six children died and an additional 300,000 were poisoned. His crime: “inciting social disorder”.

    19/12/2008 CHINA
    Chinese government not paying for children sickened by melamine-tainted milk
    The authorities had pledged free treatment, but instead parents are forced to pay and denied the right to sue guilty companies.

    31/03/2010 CHINA
    Milk scandal: closed door trial for seeking justice for sick children
    The trial of Zhao Lianhai begins, accused of fomenting unrest because he helped families to seek fair compensation. The toxic milk killed six children and infected more than 300 thousand, but the authorities want to silence debate.



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