Two Chinese Labor Leaders Get Prison
By Philip P. Pan
BEIJING, May 9 -- China sentenced two labor leaders who helped organize a series of worker protests in the country's northeastern rust belt last year to prison today despite repeated appeals for their freedom by international labor and human rights groups.
Yao Fuxin, 52, and Xiao Yunliang, 56, were given terms of seven and four years, respectively.
They were detained in March 2002 during demonstrations in the industrial city of Liaoyang that attracted tens of thousands of laid-off workers demanding unpaid wages and the punishment of corrupt officials believed to be profiting from the privatization of state factories.
The protests, which lasted several days and involved workers from more than a dozen ailing or bankrupt factories, were among the largest labor demonstrations in China in years and appeared to rattle the nation's Communist Party leaders, who view independent labor activism as a threat and are worried about rising labor unrest.
Several labor and human rights organizations, as well as a group of U.S. congressmen, had urged Beijing to release Yao and Xiao, who were featured in a Washington Post report in December about the leaders of the Liaoyang labor movement and the government's success in dividing and defeating them.
In a closed proceeding today that lasted less than 30 minutes, judges convicted both men of subversion, then immediately announced their prison terms.
The announcement came nearly five months after a one-day trial during which prosecutors portrayed the men as members of the banned China Democracy Party who worked with "hostile elements" such as foreign journalists and overseas labor groups to "overthrow the socialist system."
One member of each man's family was allowed to attend the sentencing, but the court refused to let in their defense attorneys, saying they might be carrying the SARS virus. Authorities also sealed off roads near the Liaoyang courthouse and ordered large numbers of riot police into the streets.
Several hundred residents still managed to gather outside the building in support of the two men. Some scuffled briefly with police when they refused to let Xiao's wife enter the building, but no one was injured or arrested, witnesses said.
Neither Yao nor Xiao was permitted to speak during the hearing, said Yao's daughter, Yao Dan, who was present. But she said they argued with guards for several minutes before being led into the courtroom in handcuffs, shouting that corrupt city officials should be going to prison, not them.
In a fit of anger, Yao also tore off a surgical mask he was wearing apparently to protect him from SARS, and threw it on the ground.
"Of course, these verdicts are completely unfair," his daughter said. "They weren't trying to subvert the state. They just were trying to help workers."
Relatives said the health of both men has deteriorated since their detention. Xiao has advanced cataracts and is losing his eyesight, they said, while Yao suffers from high blood pressure and heart problems.
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