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China Imprisons Activist Who Investigated Earthquake Deaths

A Chinese dissident who investigated allegations of shoddy construction in schools that were destroyed by an earthquake has been sentenced to five years in prison for subversion.

A court in the city of Chengdu convicted and sentenced activist Tan Zuoren to five years in prison. Tan's attorney Pu Zhiqiang reported the verdict, although officials at the Chengdu courthouse did not confirm it.

Tan's lawyer says his clientwas charged with inciting subversion of state power, because of comments he made about the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Roseann Rife, with human rights group Amnesty International, says her organization strongly disagrees with the court verdict.

"Amnesty is actually calling on the authorities to release Tan Zuoren immediately because we believe that he has been convicted simply for exercising his right to free expression," she said.

Rife points to what she believes to be the real reason Tan is being punished - his work with parents of children who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. More than 5,000 school children died when their schools collapsed. Tan was among the activists investigating whether shoddy school construction was to blame.

"This is certainly a negative trend for human rights activists," she said. "It is silencing people who are trying to address issues that are problems within civil society -people who are raising these issues, whether it be the Sichuan earthquake, the tainted milk scandal or housing evictions."

As in past cases involving dissidents, the Chinese government has remained largely silent. At the regular Foreign Ministry briefing Tuesday, spokesman Ma Zhaoxu was asked if China is concerned that its recent treatment of dissidents will hurt its international image.

Ma called the question erroneous, saying there are no dissidents in China. He said every person is equal before the law and that anyone who violates the law will be brought to justice.

Tan's trial in August concluded with no ruling. At that time, police detained and threatened his supporters, including internationally famous artist Ai Weiwei, who was beaten by authorities when he went to Chengdu to attend the trial.

Ai also led an independent effort to compile a list of the quake's child victims.

On Tuesday, Chinese police prevented a Hong Kong TV crew from attending Tan's trial, and tried to block the reporters from interviewing Tan's lawyer outside the courthouse.

A U.S. Embassy official in Beijing said the United States government is dismayed at the sentence and called on the Chinese government to release Tan and other jailed dissidents.