BEIJING – A Chinese father-turned-activist imprisoned for protesting a tainted milk scandal is seeking medical parole, state media said Tuesday, in what might be a deal with authorities hoping to tamp public anger over his harsh sentence.
Zhao Lianhai, whose son was among children sickened in one of China's worst food safety scandals, was sentenced earlier this month to two-and-a-half years in prison for inciting social disorder. Zhao campaigned for compensation for families of those killed or sickened because of the adulteration of milk and milk products with the industrial chemical melamine.
He first vowed to fight his conviction, said he would go on a hunger strike and last week signed legal forms for the appeal. But he has since been under apparent pressure not to appeal.
The official Xinhua News Agency said in a report early Tuesday that Zhao's application for medical parole had been accepted by judicial authorities. Zhao's lawyers said they were unable to confirm the report. A woman who answered the telephone at the Daxing district People's Court in Beijing, where Zhao was convicted, said she was unclear about Zhao's case and unable to check whether he had applied for medical parole. Like many Chinese bureaucrats, she refused to give her name.
One of Zhao's lawyers, Li Fangping, said he never discussed the possibility of medical parole with Zhao and was not aware of any health problems he might have.
In a sign that Zhao' stance was changing, the prison told his lawyers last week that Zhao did not want to see them. On Monday, Zhao again refused to see his lawyers and dismissed them via a handwritten note, said Peng Jian, his other attorney.
"It certainly creates a suspicion that some sort of a deal or other sort of inducement has led to his decision not to appeal," said Joshua Rosenzweig, the Hong Kong-based senior research manager for the Duihua Foundation, which advocates on behalf of political and religious prisoners in China. "It's quite possible that they are looking for ways to defuse the situation without admitting that they were wrong to sentence him in the first place."
Beyond the pressure on Zhao, the lawyer Peng said Monday that he was detained over the weekend for about 48 hours at a guest house north of Beijing by four plainclothes police who asked him to respect the court's initial verdict.
Zhao's conviction comes amid stepped-up efforts by Chinese authorities to silence dissent. 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.
Zhao was not a hardcore activist when his 3-year-old son developed kidney stones from drinking melamine-tainted milk in 2008. Hundreds of thousands of children were sickened and at least six died from drinking the contaminated milk, which milk suppliers added so that they could water down their products and fool protein tests. Parents nationwide were distressed by the government's seeming inability to police the food supply.
Prosecutors said Zhao incited disorder by organizing a gathering of affected parents at a restaurant, holding a protest sign in front of a court and a factory involved in the tainted milk scandal, and giving media interviews in a public place.
Rosenzweig said it would be unfortunate for Zhao in some ways if he had traded his right to appeal for medical parole.
"I think that there are reasonable grounds to say that his actions were not criminal," he said. "But by giving up the appeal, the chance to have the case heard in another court ... he's given up the chance to get justice, to have that determination made that what he did was not illegal."
Associated Press researcher Zhao Liang contributed to this report.