BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese lawyers seeking redress for infant victims of toxic milk say they are facing growing official pressure to abandon the efforts, blaming growing government sensitivity over the health scandal.
Scenes of thousands of parents crowding hospitals, seeking help for babies ill from toxic dairy powder, have stoked widespread public dismay in China.
Reflecting that anger, local rights advocates and lawyers have mobilized to support families seeking redress, possibly by suing dairies or officials who failed to disclose the problem.
But on Sunday, organizers of the campaign and some of the lawyers said officials in some provinces have pressured volunteers or their bosses to give up the campaign.
"About two dozen of the lawyers have called these past days to say they want to quit the volunteer advice group," said Li Fangping, a Beijing lawyer who helped organize the group soon after public news of the poisonings emerged.
"Some of them said that they or their offices were told they'd face serious repercussions if they stayed involved."
The pressure has by no means deterred all the lawyers to drop out, and nor does that pressure appear to have been uniformly intense, Li and other participants said. Even after the departures, the group has about 120 lawyers ready to give free advice.
But the rash of warnings suggests the government does not want lingering political and legal fallout from the milk scandal.
"I'd guess they see this issue as just too sensitive for lawyers and court cases," said Zhou Shifeng, a volunteer lawyer from Beijing who said he had heard of the pressure.
"When the interests involved are too powerful, they will devise ways to get lawyers to quit, not necessarily direct orders."
More than 13,000 infants were admitted to Chinese hospitals with kidney illnesses and other symptoms of drinking milk tainted with melamine, an industrial additive used to cheat quality checks.
A week ago, the Ministry of Health said 104 had serious illness, and close to 40,000 others were affected but did not need to stay in hospital. Four victims have died.
This week, province health offices added 10,000 or so to the count of affected children.
LAWYERS UNDER PRESSURE
Many hundreds of parents have called the volunteers to ask about compensation, and possibly suing Sanlu Group, the north Chinese dairy whose milk powder has been blamed for many of the illnesses, said Li.
He and many of the other lawyers are members of a loose network of "rights defenders" who in recent years have seized on official scandals and scares to press for stronger citizen rights.
Lawyers in Beijing said law officials there had nudged them to be "aware of the general picture" and to heed and have trust in the government's handling of the scandal.
"It was given in the spirit of concerned advice," said Zhou.
But in other parts of the country where many children are sick, apparently from milk powder, the advocates received tougher warnings, some said.
"The local judicial authorities just don't want any of us to take part," said Chang Boyang, a lawyer from central China's Henan province who helped organize the group. "The pressure on law offices was too heavy. We had to compromise."
Li said one Henan lawyer had called 15 times on Saturday to ensure his name was wiped from the list of volunteer lawyers.
An official in the Henan judicial affairs office said she was too busy to answer questions about the claimed pressure. An official in the central Ministry of Justice said he knew nothing of the claims and refused to give his name.
"I think our work helps make society fairer and more stable," said the lawyer Li. "No matter what we'll continue with it. Many parents keep calling us."