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CHINA – Mysteries remain as government obstructs investigation on Sichuan Earthquake

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year passed after the Sichuan Earthquake, yet no report is available on
the number of children killed or structural quality of the buildings
where they were. The Chinese government also arrested two people who
attempted to conduct investigations or provide legal support to
victims' families.
year passed after the Sichuan Earthquake, yet no report is available on
the number of children killed or structural quality of the buildings
where they were. The Chinese government also arrested two people who
attempted to conduct investigations or provide legal support to
victims' families.

The Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD)
issued a statement on 4 May 2009, urging the government to release the
two and allow individual investigations on the earthquake. Below is its

As the first anniversary of the devastating 12 May Sichuan Earthquake approaches,
parents of children who died buried under collapsed schools have found
little solace as officials continue to obstruct efforts to review the
causes and consequences of the tragedy.

Although the government had pledged to investigate the deaths
of students and to hold individuals accountable if shoddy construction
was to blame, a promise it reiterated in the National Human Rights
Action Plan released last month, no report on the number of children
killed or the structural quality of the collapsed school buildings has
yet been published. Instead, the government has actively prevented
individuals from performing independent investigations and suppressed
efforts by families to take legal actions by detaining and intimidating
individuals who attempt to do so.
CHRD calls on the Chinese government to make public its own assessment
of the conditions of the collapsed school buildings and a comprehensive
list of student casualties. CHRD also urges the government to
immediately release Huang Qi and Tan Zuoren, and to cease the
harassment of other individuals who attempt to conduct independent
investigations or provide legal counsel to victims' families.

Official gag rule on truth about casualties

"The unprecedented openness wisely adopted by the government
immediately following the earthquake was encouraging, but very
short-lived. It was soon replaced by a wall of silence and an atmosphere of intimidation. Officials
must have feared that investigations may turn up dirty secrets and cost
them their jobs, which explains the harsh crackdowns on activists in
Sichuan and harassment of others who came to do their own
investigations," said Renee Xia, CHRD's international director.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, questions were already
being raised about the quality of school buildings, as the number of
schools which collapsed, burying children and school staff, seemed to
be disproportionately higher than other buildings in the quake areas.
In response to the public outcry, government officials promised a
thorough investigation.

However, in less than a month's time, the attitude of the
government had changed dramatically– officials and various "experts"
started to explain the casualties away as the result of all factors but
those man-made, culminating in an article featured prominently in a
number of major Sichuan and Chengdu newspapers, including Chengdu Daily
and Sichuan Daily,
on 25 June 2008, "The Earthquake Is the Culprit for the Destruction of
Buildings; Survivors Should Look to the Future with Rationality".
The article, which summarized the opinions of about 20 "experts" in a
conference hosted by Chengdu Academy of Social Science, said that the
magnitude of the earthquake was the main reason for the buildings'
collapse, that it would be impossible to evaluate the quality of the
buildings after they had collapsed and that it would be impossible to
seek legal responsibility for the deaths of students because "multiple
factors led to the collapse of the buildings". Most recently, on 8
March 2009, Wei Hong,
Deputy Governor of Sichuan Province, mentioned at a press conference
the "conclusive opinion" of architectural "experts" and "authoritative
agencies" was that  "the high magnitude and intensity of
the Wenchuan earthquake was the most direct and primary reason for the
collapse of schools and the damage of other facilities".

How authorities and experts came to their "conclusive opinion"
on the cause of the collapsed schools remains unclear. Not one single
report on the quality of construction of these schools has yet been
released. In fact, it is unclear whether the government even conducted
investigations, and if they did, the experts and institutions behind
the research are likewise unknown. The government has also failed to
make public a comprehensive
list or the total number of students killed in the earthquake. Various
government officials have mentioned wildly disparate estimates of
student casualties: 6,581 on 21 May, 4,737 on 26 May, and then 19,065
on 21 November, the last and highest estimate was later denied as a
mistake, according to Tan Zuoren and Xie Yihui, two activists who
recently released a report on the student casualties and collapsed
school buildings in the earthquake.
Wei, the Deputy Governor of Sichuan Province, said in the same March 8
press conference that "the final number of student victims… involves
complicated operations and procedures…Therefore, the exact number of
student victims will not be available before the final determination of
the death toll and number of this earthquake". Wei, however, did not
reveal when these numbers would be made available to the public.

To read the complete statement, please click here.

(Photo courtesy of Telegraph)