Yesterday, the news spread that Tan Zuoren, Ai Weiwei’s right hand man in conducting a citizen’s investigation into the deaths of students in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, has been sentenced to five years in prison.
Reportedly,Tan was found guilty of “inciting subversion of state power”, because of his essays criticizing the crackdown against demonstrators in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. However, his lawyers remain skeptical of the vague accusation brought against him (one that is routinely used against dissidents). They have instead claimed it was his attempt to document and report the poor construction of the ill-fated Sichuan schools following the 7.9-magnitude earthquake that had aggravated the authorities.
He is not the first to be sent to jail for seemingly asking too many questions. In 2009, a Chengdu court sentenced activist Huang Qi to three years for “revealing state secrets”, after he too tried to gather information on the school buildings, whose faulty construction was seen to have contributed to the thousands of deaths. The government, meanwhile, promised an official investigation but soon clamped down on the hordes of grieving parents demanding answers.
C. Custer from China Geeks and Oiwan from Global Voices both translated several of today’s tweets from netizens, Tan’s lawyers and, of course, Ai Weiwei, who called the sentencing a “travesty of justice.” Shortly before the verdict was released, he said,
The Sichuan government refuses to make sense, refuses the facts, refuses to assume the resposibility for 5000 children who died in tofu-dreg buildings. They thing they can just judge Tan Zuoren and it’s all decided, [they’re] dreaming.
One of Tan’s lawyers tweeted that, after receiving his sentence, Tan left the court saying, “being imprisoned for the sake of my people is my honour.”
Tan’s sentencing is yet another episode in the recent intense crackdown on dissent in China. Liu Xiaobo’s imprisonment on Christmas Day 2009, and the revelation that outspoken human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng allegedly ‘went missing’ after his arrest last year. However, according to Ai Weiwei,
Tan’s case is the most important one to take place recently, because it is a sign of a huge step backwards in China’s judicial ethics and independence after decades of reform and opening.