Asia Crisis

Witnesses held as China quake activist trial starts

BEIJING, Aug 12 (Reuters) - A famous Chinese artist was roughed up and reporters and witnesses detained on Wednesday, the first day of the trial of a Chinese activist who investigated the death toll from last year's devastating Sichuan earthquake.

Tan Zuoren is formally accused of defaming the Communist Party in emailed comments about 1989's bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators around Tiananmen square. His trial in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, adjourned without a verdict on Wednesday, said his lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang.

Tan's supporters and Amnesty International say he was detained because he planned to issue an independent report on the collapse of school buildings during the Sichuan earthquake, in which more than 80,000 people died.

Contemporary artist Ai Weiwei, who travelled to Chengdu to testify, said he and 10 other volunteers were woken by police entering their hotel rooms before dawn on Wednesday, beaten up and prevented from leaving until after the trial adjourned.

"If they act this way to us witnesses, how must they be to local people, people without a voice?" Ai told Reuters from the airport, as he prepared to return to Beijing.

"They were like gangs in a movie, they could do whatever they wanted. It was very scary."

Tan's trial began a week after another earthquake activist, Huang Qi, was tried on state secrets charges in Chengdu. Huang's verdict has not yet been issued.

China was widely praised for its rapid rescue and reconstruction effort after the earthquake, which also left around 5 million people homeless.

But media, bereaved parents and thousands of volunteers who swarmed to the scene quickly focused on schools which collapsed while surrounding buildings withstood three minutes of shaking.

The government quickly moved to quell discussion of shoddy construction, and the implied accusation of corruption. Parents have been prevented from travelling to Beijing to petition central government authorities.

Tan's report on the earthquake was not dissimilar to reports published by respected Chinese media, Pu said.

"All the investigative volunteers, the methods and writing, all show his investigation is objective and scientific," Pu said.

Five of the would-be witnesses are still detained by police, said Ai, who had compiled a list of the dead children.

Hong Kong's Now TV aired footage of Chengdu police searching the luggage and hotel rooms of two of its journalists, who were prevented from leaving the hotel for seven hours while police said they looked for drugs.

"I was very shocked by this. I have covered many sensitive court cases and I have never seen a situation like this, where reporters are captured in their hotel and prevented from reporting," said Bruce Lui, a reporter for Hong Kong's Cable TV, who was also prevented from covering the trial.

China's official statistics show that 5,335 children died in the quake. (Reporting by Lucy Hornby; Additional reporting by James Pomfret in Hong Kong; Editing by Sugita Katyal)