Chinese father punished for food safety activism

Zhao Lianhai had pushed for greater official accountability and compensation for victims and their families after the 2008 scandal that shocked China. His sentence appeared particularly severe because the case related to a public safety incident that the embarrassed leadership had pledged to tackle in a bid to restore consumer confidence.

"We'd expected it to be much less than that. It is such a harsh sentence," lawyer Li Fangping said. "The crimes he was accused of were nothing more than what regular citizens would do to defend their rights."

Zhao, a Beijing resident whose young son was among scores of children sickened by melamine-tainted milk, vowed to appeal and began a hunger strike to protest the verdict, Li said.

Zhao set up an online forum to share information about the poisonings in 2008 after his son, then 3, was diagnosed with kidney stones.

"When he heard that his sentence was two and a half years, he was appalled, and he pushed away a sign that was in front of him, and said, 'I'm not guilty. I want to appeal.' He tried to remove his prison uniform, and refused to be handcuffed,'' Li said.

Amnesty International condemned the sentence. "We are appalled that the authorities have imprisoned a man the Chinese public rightly view as a protector of children, not a criminal," said Catherine Baber, the human rights group's Asia-Pacific deputy director.

Zhao, a former reporter and media advertising salesman, was taken away by police in November 2009. His sentence appears to be part of a trend of growing intolerance for government critics and independent social activists.

Environmentalists, AIDS activists and lawyers who took on sensitive cases have disappeared, been locked up, or otherwise harassed, while this year's Nobel Peace Prize recipient, dissident writer Liu Xiaobo, is serving an 11-year prison sentence for subversion handed down after he co-authored a call for widespread reform of the authoritarian, one-party political system.

Li said prosecutors levelled three charges against Zhao: That he organised a gathering of a dozen parents of sick children at a restaurant, held a paper sign in front of a court and factory involved in the scandal as a protest, and gave media interviews in a public place.

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