One of the lawyers who acted on behalf of the victims of last year’s poisoned milk scandal in China has been detained by the authorities in the latest clampdown on civil rights activists.
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.
Gongmeng 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 website said.
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.