Chinese lawyer who helped poisoned milk
victims is held by authorities
of Article: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/asia/article6733993.ece
In an early morning raid yesterday, Xu Zhiyong was taken from his home
by public security officials, according to a statement posted on the
website of the Open Constitution Initiative, a group that Mr Xu helped to
found in 2007 to push for the rule of law.
“According to the security guard of the residence area where Xu Zhiyong
stays, at 5am of July 29, a policeman and five plainclothes took Xu Zhiyong
away. Where to remains unknown,” said the statement, which was posted today
by the group known as Gongmeng in Chinese.
Gongmeng made headlines last year when its lawyers volunteered to work
on behalf of the victims of the Sanlu Group’s tainted milk powder, which
killed at least six children and sickened hundreds of thousands more.
also angered Beijing with a report that criticised the Government’s
handling of demonstrations across the Tibetan plateau last year.
Mr Xu’s colleagues reported today that his house was locked and that he
cannot be reached on his mobile phone.
His arrest comes just over two weeks after Beijing’s Civil Affairs
Bureau raided Gongmeng’s headquarters in the capital, declaring the group
to be illegal and claiming that it was behind in its tax payments.
Mr Xu was supposed to have attended a hearing today about the tax case,
in which Gongmeng faces a fine of 304,975 yuan (£27,065), the group’s
During the office raid on July 17, Mr Xu told reporters who reached him
by phone that officials would be shutting down Gongmeng for having failed
to register as a nongovernmental organisation, a difficult process.
In the raid on Gongmeng’s headquarters, officials confiscated
computers, furniture and four years of legal research into the cases of
petitioners who had brought their grievances to Beijing from all across
China in a last-ditch effort to get justice.
Gongmeng’s lawyers had been pushing to take advantage of a new food
safety law, which came into effect on June 1. This enabled victims of food
poisoning in China to ask the courts to award compensation worth ten times
the value of the tainted products purchased.
In a new direction, the courts are also increasingly awarding victims
additional damages for loss. This year China’s high court gave clearance
for lower courts to handle such cases, but after lawyers organising
class-action lawsuits over the poisoned milk powder were harassed, it was
unclear whether any cases would proceed.
This month Mr Xu told reporters that since June 1, the court in
Shijiazhuang, the city 270 km southeast of Beijing where Sanlu was based,
has accepted two cases against the now bankrupt company. Neither has yet
had a hearing.
In China — where courts do not award damages for what Western lawyers
would call “pain and suffering”, nor grant punitive damages as a deterrent
— compensation amounts vary widely.
China’s central government determined last year that families of the
victims of Sanlu’s poisoned milk would get 200,000 yuan (£17,751) for a
death in the family and 30,000 yuan if surgery was required. Workers in
Beijing earned an average of 44,715 yuan last year.
More than 90 per cent of the families affected accepted a compensation
deal from the Ministry of Health. One of its terms blocked their right to
sue the 22 milk powder manufacturers found culpable.
The milk powder produced by Sanlu and other manufacturers contained the
toxic chemical melamine, whose high nitrogen content helped watered-down
milk to pass quality checks for protein content.