BEIJING: A human rights advocate who tried to help grieving parents push for an official investigation into a school that collapsed during last May's earthquake in Sichuan Province has been charged with illegal possession of state secrets, a legal step Chinese officials take when they intend to punish a dissident.
The advocate, Huang Qi, runs an informal organization called the Tianwang Human Rights Center in the city of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, in southwest China. Huang's wife, Zeng Li, said she was told on Monday the charge against her husband and that a closed-door trial would be held soon.
People charged with "illegal possession of state secrets" have little hope of defending themselves against the charge in the Chinese court system, which operates under Communist Party control. The official definition of secrets is broad and flexible, and can be applied to widely available government documents or even reports published in state-run media. The exact secret involved is rarely revealed publicly, because it remains classified as a secret.
The charge is used often enough to punish people who have challenged the authorities that some human rights advocates consider allegations of illegally possessing or revealing state secrets the modern equivalent of a political offense under Mao.
Huang was detained on June 10 after posting an article on his center's Web site, 64tianwang.com, relating the demands of five parents whose children had died in the collapse of Dongqi Middle School in the town of Hanwang. The parents wanted compensation, an investigation into the school's construction and the responsible parties to be held accountable if fault was found.
Huang has been held since June 10 without being indicted. Zeng said after his detention that plainclothes policemen bundled him into a car. The police later told her he was being held on suspicion of illegally possessing state secrets.
On Monday, she said in a telephone interview that the Wuhou District People's Court in Chengdu called her to tell her of the formal charge and an imminent start to his trial, which she said she was told could be held on Tuesday. But his lawyer, Mo Shaoping, a prominent human rights attorney, said he had protested that the sudden announcement of the trial date gave him too little time to prepare, The Associated Press reported.
Zeng, who was not allowed to see her husband for nearly four months after he was first detained, said that the court had asked her for a telephone number to reach the lawyer.
Illegal possession of state secrets, which carries a sentence of three years in prison, is difficult to defend against because lawyers, family members and witnesses all have limited access to the evidence in the case. If the bureaucracy that oversees state secrets certifies that information or a document in possession of the accused amounts to a secret, a conviction is generally a foregone conclusion unless higher authorities intervene to quash the case.
"There's an expansive definition of state secrets, and the problem is it cannot be challenged, and very often the courts don't see the documents that are allegedly state secrets," said Nicholas Bequelin, a China researcher for Human Rights Watch. "There's no mechanism under Chinese law to challenge something that the prosecution says is a state secret. So basically, if you're charged with state secrets, it's unlikely you can shake the charges."
Huang and Zeng started their human rights organization in 1998 to focus on human trafficking. In 2000, after Huang wrote on his Web site about a member of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement who had been beaten to death in policy custody, the local police blocked his site.
Huang then moved his content to a server in the United States. He later wrote about a 15-year-old boy who was detained in Chengdu during the 1989 student-led protests in Beijing and died in police custody.
The police detained Huang after that, and a court eventually found him guilty of inciting subversion. Huang was sentenced to prison for five years. When he got out, he started his Web site again and asked human rights advocates to contribute articles.