China's 'toxic milk' father sacks lawyers as appeal window expires
A Chinese father, who was jailed for two-and-a-half years after he tried to warn other parents during the country's toxic baby-milk crisis, has dismissed his lawyers on the final day for him to file an appeal.
Zhao Lianhai, a 38-year-old former employee of China's Food Quality and Safety administration, apparently signed a notice asking for his legal team to stand down despite urging them to file an appeal on his case last Friday.
"Two officials at the prison where he is being held gave us a document signed by Mr Zhao saying that we were dismissed," said Li Fangping, one of his lawyers. "We asked to see him, in order to verify that he had signed it of his own free will and that it was real, but our request was turned down," he added.
Mr Zhao set up a website to warn parents after at least six children died, and more than 300,000 toddlers, including his own five-year-old son, were poisoned by milk that was laced with melamine, an industrial chemical that made the milk appear more wholesome.
However, he was jailed after he became an unofficial leader for the thousands of parents who were outraged by the crisis and who pressed loudly for compensation for their medical bills.
He was sentenced for "creating a disturbance" during David Cameron's visit to China earlier this month, in a sign of the scant regard that the Chinese government pays to British opinions on its civil liberties.
Mr Li, who has tackled some of China's most difficult human rights cases, said he had been put under more pressure during Mr Zhao's case than in many of his earlier cases. "It is difficult to understand why," he said. "But his family is also being put under a lot of pressure."
Mr Zhao's other lawyer, Peng Jian, said his wife, Li Xuemei, had also given them a notice of dismissal. Calls to her phone yesterday went unanswered, but last week a female answering her phone said that Mrs Li was not allowed to use her phone "for the time being".
Mr Peng met with Mr Zhao last Friday, during which he insisted that he wished to appeal the verdict and confirmed that he had begun a hunger strike in protest. Without an appeal, Mr Zhao's initial conviction will now stand.
In 2008, Mr Zhao said he was determined to spread information about the melamine-poisoning so that parents in the Chinese countryside, who lived far away from hospitals, would be spurred to seek treatment for their children.
He said his own son, Pengrui, had shown no symptoms before being diagnosed with a kidney stone. "That is what worries me, because a lot of parents might not realise their kids have a problem, and the problem could get serious," he said.
The Chinese government has taken the unusual step of defending Mr Zhao's conviction, issuing a notice through Xinhua, its official news agency, saying that Mr Zhao had "made use" of China's toxic milk crisis to "organise, provoke and rally people to make trouble by chanting slogans and gathering illegally".
Evidence produced in court accused Mr Zhao of giving interviews to journalists on a public pavement, holding a dinner for a dozen other parents in the private room of a restaurant, and of holding up a small protest sign outside the court case of the milk company executives responsible for the poisoning.
Meanwhile, there were reports in China yesterday of a fresh batch of melamine-tainted dairy products. The Hubei provincial Commerce bureau said that the Yuanshan dairy company had produced a batch of toxic yoghurt and that 50 cases may have entered the food chain. However, the Global Times, a state newspaper, said that the cases had not been delivered. There have been several instances of melamine contamination since the 2008 crisis, as the government has struggled to eradicate the practise.