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Ghosts of Tienanmen Square

Twenty-three years later, democracy protest's legacy lives on

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BEIJING -- Twenty-three years after China's sweeping crackdown on the Tiananmen Square democracy demonstrations, fewer than a dozen people remain in prison, among them elderly and likely mentally ill prisoners, a rights group said this week.

 

The estimate by the Dui Hua Foundation sheds light on what for some Chinese remains an unresolved issue: the government's lack of accounting for the military assault on June 3 and 4, 1989, that ended the protests centred on Beijing's Tiananmen Square and the nationwide clampdown that followed.

Of the more than 1,000 people believed convicted and sent to prison in the clampdown, most served out their sentences or were released on parole.

The dwindling few still in prison are not students who led the protests but represent a hardcore who committed arson or attacked martial-law troops, said John Kamm, Dui Hua's executive director.

"Basically, the guys who are left are guys who torched trucks, the guys who were jumping up on tanks and throwing molotov cocktails," said Kamm. "This is the legacy of Tiananmen."

Dui Hua's estimate of fewer than a dozen is based on information culled from its database of prisoners and from unofficial sources. Kamm said a source in the Chinese government he declined to further identify confirmed in the past month the estimate is accurate.

Among those Dui Hua said are still believed to be in prison are 73-year-old Jiang Yaqun who was convicted of "counter-revolutionary sabotage" and 48-year-old Miao Deshun who was convicted of arson. Miao was put in solitary confinement in 1997 after he mutilated himself, Kamm said, and both he and Jiang are believed to be in Beijing's Yanqing prison which contains mostly elderly, weak, ill and disabled prisoners.

The severity of their sentences and the age and condition of the prisoners underscore how distant a public reckoning remains for some Chinese, and how they may not live to see it.

Last week, 73-year-old Ya Weilin hanged himself in a parking garage in Beijing out of despair the government would never address the assault that killed his son, said a member of a support group for victims' families, the Tiananmen Mothers.

"We Tiananmen Mothers are pushing for a clear solution to this matter, but we do not know when that solution is going to happen. We do not think a solution will come in the short term," said Zhang Xianling.

Zhang's 19-year-old high school student son was killed as soldiers fought their way into Beijing to clear Tiananmen Square, and the melee is believed to have left hundreds dead. In response to the violence in Beijing, people in more than 180 cities staged demonstrations that in some cases also had to be quelled violently. The government has never provided a credible account for the victims or the arrests.

While many of the students and educated Chinese who took leading roles in the protests were released after serving their terms or given parole in the 1990s, the government took a harder line against the ordinary Chinese who rose up and took to violence.

Li Yujun, who was convicted of arson apparently for setting fire to a military vehicle in Beijing, was released from prison in the past month, Dui Hua said. Initially sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve, Li saw his sentence commuted first to life imprisonment and then to 20 years, the group said.

Jiang and Miao, the two still believed to be in Yanqing Prison, also saw their death sentences commuted to life imprisonment and then shorter terms, said Dui Hua. Still, it said, Jiang is not scheduled for release for two more years while Miao's sentence runs out in September 2018.

Dui Hua said it believes five others in its prisoner database may still be in prison for 1989 offences: One of them, Yu Rong, was declared mentally ill in 1990 and sent to a state institution.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 2, 2012 J12

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