BEIJING – A court in southwestern China has rejected a lawsuit filed by a group of parents seeking compensation for the deaths of their children when their classrooms crumbled during a devastating earthquake in May, one of the parents said Tuesday.
The court's move is a sign of the authorities' extreme sensitivity to any protests by parents demanding investigations into alleged corruption and shoddy construction, a flash point for government critics after the 7.9-magnitude quake killed nearly 70,000 people in Sichuan province, including many students.
The group of about 60 parents filed the lawsuit against school and local authorities in Sichuan province Dec. 1 at the Deyang People's Intermediate Court, said a parent who would only give his surname, Sang, because he was afraid of official retaliation.
The parents want an official apology and compensation for the deaths of their children after Fuxin No. 2 Primary School in Mianzhu city collapsed during the May 12 quake.
The government still has not given a separate toll for children who were crushed when their shoddily built schools collapsed, but has said that about 7,000 classrooms were destroyed. Their deaths have become a sensitive political issue, with parents — many of whom lost their only child — staging protests demanding investigations.
Many of the parents say they have also been subjected to intimidation and financial inducements to silence them.
Sang, one of the parents' representatives, said a judge from the court last week informed the plaintiffs verbally that it would not accept their case and that the central government had issued an internal memo to the courts to say that such cases were not to be heard.
Sang also said police on Sunday detained one of the other parents for a day and warned him against talking to overseas media, saying those who did could face treason charges.
"We representatives are now moving constantly to hide away from the police," Sang said. "We have to live in our relatives' homes."
At the People's Intermediate Court in Deyang, a woman surnamed Dai confirmed that a lawsuit had been filed against the town of Fuxin, the education department of Mianzhu, the school's principal and the company that built the school. She referred further questions to a case filing department that refused to take calls from the media.
Sang said the group continued to grow by the day, with about 80 parents currently planning to petition the Deyang city government now that the court has rejected the case.
"We are reluctant to set a time for the petition now as there are too many of us. Once they find out about our plan, we won't be able to carry it out," Sang said.
In September, a Chinese government scientist acknowledged that a rush to build schools in recent years likely led to construction flaws causing so many of them to collapse — the first official admission that low construction standards may have been behind the student deaths.
Often, schoolhouses were the only buildings in the area to fully collapse and experts say China's problem, similar to that in many other parts of the world, was a lack of commitment by governments to safe schools.
While the government has vowed strict punishment for bad construction along with the investigation, there has so far been no public attempt to hold anyone accountable.