Release our relatives, China AIDS victims say

BEIJING, April 16 (Reuters) - A group of Chinese HIV/AIDS sufferers appealed on Wednesday for police to release their relatives, detained after trying to complain to Premier Wen Jiabao about a hospital they said spread the HIV virus.

Wen visited Hebei province, next to Beijing, on April 5, and some residents of Shahe in the province's south hoped to use the rare visit by the top leader to complain about a hospital whose blood transfusions they blame for spreading HIV among them and their families, said their lawyer Jiang Tianyong.

Police detained 11 petitioners at the time and seven or eight remained in detention, said Jiang.

"Our husbands have been detained, so how can we live?" wailed one woman, who asked not to be identified, speaking to reporters in a Beijing hotel, tears streaming down her face. "We have come to Beijing to use the law to find out what happened to them."

Jiang said local police had refused to say what had happened to those detained, or what charges could be lodged against them, as they told him it was a case of national security.

"They just went hoping to meet Wen. They heard he was a person who cared about the people's suffering," Jiang added. "We hope their husbands can be released as soon as possible."

The case is a reminder of the continuing tensions over a blood-driven AIDS epidemic that spread in the 1990s through rural China, especially Henan province in the country's centre. HIV spread rapidly via unhygienic commercial blood-collection businesses and hospitals that failed to check blood supplies.

In repeated telephone calls to police and government offices in Shahe and Xingtai, officials have said they do not know of the case or said it was not their responsibility.

In recent years, China has given free medicines to many rural AIDS patients, as well as some economic help, and national leaders, including Wen, have held public meetings with patients to ease the stigma that many still suffer.

But patients and rights advocates complain that they are blocked from suing hospitals and officials they blame for letting HIV/AIDS spread.

"This is a country ruled be laws. We should show that this is the case," said Jiang. (Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Alex Richardson)