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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

China milk campaigner 'forced to sack lawyers'

HONG KONG (AFP) - – A Chinese father jailed for "inciting social disorder" after campaigning for victims of melamine-tainted milk may have been forced to sack his lawyers, a rights group said Monday.

Zhao Lianhai, whose child was one of 300,000 sickened in the scandal in 2008, when six died, was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison earlier this month.

The China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, a Hong Kong-based organisation, said his two lawyers had tried to visit him at the Daxing detention centre, near Beijing, on Monday, but were not allowed to meet him.

In a statement the CHRLCG said his pair "suddenly received a note, with Zhao's signature and fingerprint, indicating to dismiss them as his lawyers" from the chief of the detention centre.

Pointing out that Zhao had stated his intention to appeal and Monday was the last day for him to do so, the CHRLCG said it was "strange" for him to sack the lawyers at that point and the note "might not represent Zhao's own wish".

"It was suspected that the Chinese government has been aggressively applying every measure to stop Zhao from lodging an appeal," the group said, adding that the move was "seriously violating the two lawyers' right to represent their client.

"We are very concerned whether Zhao has been coerced and faced any torture in the detention centre," it said, adding that Zhao's wife had given them a similar note.

The development came as state media said that authorities in central China were searching for a batch of dairy products containing high levels of melamine, the chemical involved in the scandal.

The government in Hubei province's Xiangfan city has asked all local businesses to look for 50 packages of a corn-flavoured dairy drink, the official China Daily newspaper reported.

Tests showed the melamine levels in the drinks were high, suggesting that the chemical -- which is normally used in making plastics -- was deliberately added during the production process, the report said.

It was not clear how many individual drinks were in one package.

The report said the company that made the drinks being sought in Hubei had bought milk powder as a raw material from a supplier in another province without knowing it was tainted with melamine.

China's dairy industry was rocked in 2008 by revelations that melamine was added to powdered milk to make it appear higher in protein content, sickening babies and causing worldwide recalls of products containing Chinese dairy ingredients.

The government said at the time it had destroyed all tainted milk powder and gave the all-clear, but reports of melamine-laced products have regularly re-emerged since then.

In July, authorities in China said they found 25,000 tonnes of milk powder tainted with melamine earlier this year.

The human rights group Amnesty International has condemned Zhao's conviction and imprisonment, saying it was "appalled".

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