Chinese Government Must Release Food Safety Activist Zhao Lianhai

UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Should Raise Zhao’s Case During his Mission to China

(Chinese Human Rights Defenders, December 15, 2010)- On December 15, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, begins a 10-day mission to China, the first official visit to China of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food.  CHRD calls upon the Special Rapporteur to raise the case of imprisoned food safety activist Zhao Lianhai (赵 连海) during his meetings with Chinese officials.  Zhao, who founded the online advocacy group “Kidney Stone Babies” in response to the 2008 tainted milk powder scandal, was convicted of “creating a disturbance” and sentenced to two and a half years in prison on November 10, 2010. The circumstances surrounding Zhao’s detention and conviction demonstrate that the Chinese government is more concerned with quelling grassroots calls for reform than it is with transparently handling food safety issues and implementing the rule of law.

“Zhao’s calls for better oversight of the nation’s food supply, increased government accountability and openness, and efforts to disseminate information about food safety issues are closely in line with the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food,” said Renee Xia, CHRD’s International Director. “Yet the Chinese government has convicted him of a crime for his activism, and in the process made a mockery of the legal system and the rule of law.”

Zhao’s case has been marked from the beginning by violations of international human rights standards and Chinese law. Detained in November 2009, Zhao was not tried for “creating a disturbance” until March 30, 2010, a delay that his lawyer Li Fangping (李方平) said “far exceeded” the legally stipulated time limits. Evidence of Zhao’s “crime” presented in court consisted of his efforts to hold meetings and demonstrations regarding the 2008 tainted milk scandal, and interviews he gave to the media to draw attention to the scandal. CHRD believes Zhao was being punished for exercising his rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly by organizing aggrieved parents to push for greater accountability, legal remedies, and reform of the food safety system. After spending more than seven additional months awaiting his verdict, Zhao was convicted and sentenced on November 10, 2010.

Zhao reacted to his conviction by angrily tearing off his detainee uniform and announcing he was going on a hunger strike in protest; he also stated he would appeal the ruling. Yet on November 22, the final day on which he could file an appeal, Zhao’s lawyers received a note allegedly signed by Zhao stating he would no longer need their services, and Zhao did not file an appeal. Some have speculated that Zhao was pressured into dropping his appeal and firing his lawyers in exchange for release on medical parole. However, at the time of writing, Zhao’s whereabouts remain unclear and it is believed that he remains detained at Daxing Detention Center in Beijing.

A central tenet of the right to food, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, is that individuals must have access to adequate food, defined as food that, among other conditions, is safe for human consumption. While the Chinese government will undoubtedly point to the new Food Safety Law, which went into effect in June 2009, as evidence that it is taking steps to address the problem of oversight, food safety remains a major concern for Chinese citizens. This is due in part to a lack of openness, marked by directives to the media prohibiting reporting on food safety incidents and the harassment and prosecution of grassroots activists like Zhao Lianhai. Until the Chinese government allows members of civil society to take part in the oversight of China’s food supply, there is little hope that it can ensure its citizens the right to adequate food.

CHRD calls for the immediate release of Zhao Lianhai. We also urge the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, to raise Zhao’s case during his visit.

Media Contacts:

Renee Xia, International Director (English and Mandarin), +852 8191 6937 or +1 301 547 9286

Wang Songlian, Research Coordinator (English and Mandarin), +852 8191 1660

David Smalls, Researcher (English) +1 347 448 5285

For more information, please see:

“Beijing Activist Zhao Lianhai Pressured into Dropping Appeal, Firing Lawyers,” China Human Rights Briefing November 16-23, 2010, http://chrdnet.org/2010/11/24/china-human-rights-briefing-november-16-23-2010/

“Zhao Lianhai, Advocate for Milk Powder Victims, Sentenced to Two and a Half Years in Prison after Long Delay,” China Human Rights Briefing November 10-15, http://chrdnet.org/2010/11/16/china-human-rights-briefing-november-10-15-2010/

“China Tightens Grip on Media in Effort to Control Damage from Tainted Milk Scandal,” September 29, 2008, http://chrdnet.org/2008/09/29/china-tightens-grip-on-media-in-effort-to-control-damage-from-tainted-milk-scandal-2/

For more information about the Special Rapporteur on the right to food and his work, see http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/food/index.htm.

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