A Chinese activist who sought compensation for children sickened by the 2008 tainted milk scandal has fired his legal representatives, and will apply for medical parole.
Zhao Lianhai, whose child was one of 300,000 made ill by infant formula milk laced with the industrial chemical melamine, was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in jail by Beijing's Daxing District People's Court on Nov. 11.
The state-controlled Xinhua news agency said Tuesday that no appeal had been filed but added that Zhao had applied for medical parole.
The report has sparked speculation that the authorities may be getting ready to do a deal with Zhao, whose sentencing caused a public outcry.
Zhao's lawyer, Peng Jian said he and fellow lawyer Li Fangping had received the notification that they had been fired from detention center officials, rather than from Zhao himself.
"They gave me a note saying that he was ending my instruction as his lawyer," Peng said. Li said he had received the same note.
"After that we went to Zhao Lianhai's home, and his wife, Xuemei, wrote us a note informing us that they were terminating our instruction as his legal representatives."
"They didn't say [why] ... But that's the end of the matter. That's the way it has to be," Peng said.
He said the detention center staff hadn't given a clear answer about whether or not Zhao Lianhai would continue with the planned appeal, the deadline for which passed on Tuesday.
Warnings from police
Li Fangping said he had spoken to the detention center directors.
"They showed me a note on which were written the words, 'I hereby terminate the instruction to lawyers Li Fangping and Peng Jian to act as my legal representatives.' It was dated Nov. 17, 2010."
"I wasn't able to see him to ask him under what circumstances he had written this note," Li said.
"We don't really know, and so we have no way to challenge this."
Peng said both he and Li were visited by police in recent days, who warned him to remain "objective" when giving interviews to the media about Zhao's case.
"They told me not to go giving the wrong impression ... They say I am distorting the story, but everything I say is factual," Peng said.
"There is very little of my subjective opinion in it. There's not even much objective comment."
Zhao, 38, is being held in a Beijing detention center after being convicted of "creating a disturbance" through his advocacy activities.
Zhao's supporters say he had not been taking action just on behalf of his own child, but on behalf of all children and parents who had been affected by the melamine-tainted milk scandal.
Anger at sentence
Fellow activists and online commentators have expressed deep and widespread anger at the sentence handed down to Zhao.
Professor Wang Youjin of the China University of Political Science and Law said at the time that the sentence meant that the authorities fear that Zhao Lianhai could be a rallying point for opposition to the ruling Communist Party.
And Beijing-based rights activist Xu Zhiyong called on the government to reverse Zhao's sentence.
"It all depends on whether the Chinese government respects the rule of law or not," said Xu, who has also been warned by police not to involve himself in Zhao's case.
"If they do, then it's very clear what has to happen," he said.
A total of 21 people were convicted for their roles in the scandal, and two were executed.
Meanwhile, local media reported that authorities in central China's Hubei province were searching for 50 packages of a corn-flavored dairy drink found to have been laced with melamine.
The government said after the 2008 scandal that it destroyed all tainted milk powder, but reports of melamine-laced products have regularly re-emerged.
Reported in Mandarin by Qiao Long and in Cantonese by Lin Jing. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.