China blocking lawsuits against Wuhan administration, claim kin of COVID-19 victims

Veteran Chinese activist Yang Zhanqing said that the Wuhan Intermediate Court has rejected multiple suits on unspecified procedural grounds, sending rejections via phone calls instead of official written explanations, to 'avoid a paper trail'

Agence France-Presse September 17, 2020 18:14:12 IST
China blocking lawsuits against Wuhan administration, claim kin of COVID-19 victims

This photo taken on 6 Sepember, 2020 shows Zhong Hanneng crying as she displays a portrait of her son Peng Yi who died from the COVID-19 coronavirus in the city of Wuhan, in China's central Hubei province. Alongside other bereaved relatives -- she wants to sue the local government she blames for his death. AFP

Wuhan: At least five lawsuits have been filed with the Wuhan Intermediate Court, said Zhang Hai, whose elderly father died of the virus and who has emerged as a vocal advocate and spokesman for families of virus victims. Plaintiffs are each seeking around two million yuan ($295,000) in damages and a public apology.

But the court has rejected suits on unspecified procedural grounds, said Yang Zhanqing, a veteran Chinese activist now in the US.

Yang, who is coordinating two dozen lawyers in China who are secretly advising families, said the rejections have come via curt phone calls – not through official written explanations, as legally required – apparently to avoid a paper trail.

Staff at the Wuhan court refused AFP requests for comment.

Stonewalling
The virus emerged in Wuhan last December but city authorities initially dragged their feet, pressuring whistle-blowing doctors to keep quiet.

The Communist Party continues to downplay responsibility, even questioning whether the pathogen originated in China while trumpeting its later success in suppressing domestic infections.

It held a grand ceremony in Beijing last week, where President Xi Jinping declared the nation had passed an "extraordinary and historic test" through a swift and transparent response.

But Zhong tells a different story.

By late January, the contagion was spreading rapidly in Wuhan, but officials had still issued no citywide alarm.

With the extended Lunar New Year festival approaching, Zhong and her son Peng Yi -- a 39-year-old primary schoolteacher -- happily shopped at jam-packed stores. Millions of others left Wuhan for the holiday, taking the infection globally.

"We had no idea the buses were full of the virus... So we went out every day. We didn't even know about masks," Zhong told AFP.

On 24 January, as Wuhan finally began locking down, she and Peng fell ill. She soon recovered, but he worsened.

Fear gripped their household, which included Zhong's husband, Peng's wife, and his seven-year-old daughter.

For the next two agonising weeks, they spent long hours in overwhelmed hospitals begging to get him admitted, but without a positive result – and with testing kits scarce – he has repeatedly turned away.

Peng was finally hospitalised on 6 February. His family never saw him alive again. He died on a respirator two weeks later.

"He must have been so scared, so unhappy, with no family around. I can't imagine how sad he was," said Zhong, breaking down repeatedly.

"Did he call out 'Mother'? 'Father'? I don't know."

'Never give up'
Zhang Hai believes his father was infected at a Wuhan hospital during treatment for an unrelated ailment.

He says authorities are waging a campaign to discredit him, suspending his social media accounts and circulating disinformation that the legal efforts are a scam to bilk families.

Others also have reported official intimidation, and next-of-kin chat groups have been infiltrated by police, Zhang alleged, blaming Wuhan's government.

"They know if I succeed in filing a case, many other families will sue, too," he said.

Wuhan's government did not respond to AFP's requests for comment.

Zhang said dozens of bereaved relatives have coalesced in chat groups, but most are fearful of taking action.

With his initial suit in Wuhan rejected, Zhang filed recently with a higher, provincial-level court. Zhong, the elderly pensioner, plans the same.

Yang, the US-based activist, believes it "very likely" the government will quietly meet some families' demands eventually, though a public apology is inconceivable.

Until then, Zhang intends to appeal all the way to China's highest court in Beijing, regardless of the personal risks.

"My father is my motivation," he said.

 

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