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Legal Deadlock Hampers Indemnity to Fire Victims' Families

Relatives of the 25 detainees burned to death in 2001 in south China's Guangdong Province when the locked bus in which they were travelling caught fire have been told their case against the detention centre would not be allowed to proceed.

Relatives of the 25 detainees burned to death when the locked bus in which they were travelling caught fire have been told their case against the detention centre would not be allowed to proceed.

The reason given was that the defendant in the compensation case, the Shanwei Detention and Removal Centre, was unwilling to sign the indictment, the China Youth Daily reported.

The case had been scheduled to go to court on August 25 but this was also cancelled.

On April 9, 2001, a fire broke out on the locked bus carrying the 25 detainees as it drove along a highway in South China's Guangdong Province.

An official from the centre tried unsuccessfully to put out the fire with an extinguisher. About 20 minutes after the fire was detected he contacted the detention centre and was told to open the bus and let the detainees out.

With another official he tried to unlock the door to free the detainees but it was fire-damaged and would not open.

When firefighters arrived they found the bodies of the 25 detainees crushed together near the locked door.

Most of the dead were under 30.

On June 11, 2003, Mu Weigang, whose son died on the bus, and the relatives of eight other detainees killed in the fire brought an action against the detention centre (now a welfare centre under recently passed laws) and asked for compensation of 187,420 yuan (US$22,663) for each of the dead detainees.

Wang Qiuping, a lawyer for the families, said the shelving of the case just because of the defendant's unwillingness to sign the indictment was unreasonable.

An investigation into the fire found that it was started by one of the detainees. This was because a lighter was found in their area on the bus.

During the investigation hearing, officials from the detention centre said it was not the first time detainees had lit a fire on a bus. They said there had been three earlier fires which had not resulted in any deaths. The officials said the aim behind the fires was to force the guards to open the bus door so the detainees could escape.

After the tragedy, two officials from the centre were accused of dereliction of duty and they each received prison sentences of six and a half years. The head of the centre was sentenced to three years in jail on the same charge.

The families of most of those who died in the fire received a "subsidy" of between 40,000 and 50,000 yuan (US$4,837 and US$6,046). Some of the dead could not be identified.

In mid-2002, when the detention centre's officials were convicted, the families of the victims who were able to be identified began a campaign for national compensation.

Lawyer Wang said the court conviction of the officials was an important part of the families' case for compensation.

He said the jail sentences confirmed the illegal actions of the centre's officials. According to the National Compensation Law, the centre should pay compensation. The "subsidy" was not adequate compensation, Wang said.

(Shanghai Star August 28, 2003)

Victims of State Infringement Actions Deserve More
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