September 16, 2011 / 3:32 AM / 8 years ago

Shanghai fire victims' families fight for justice

SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Almost a year after a deadly fire in a high-rise Shanghai apartment building killed 58 people, the relatives of some of the victims are still fighting for the authorities to be more transparent about the disaster.

People prepare to mourn for the victims of an apartment block blaze at a commemoration ceremony at the entrance of the site in Shanghai November 21, 2010. REUTERS/Aly Song

The fire was blamed on unlicensed welding during renovations that set nylon netting ablaze, prompting public anger at lax enforcement of safety standards in a city that prides itself on being a modern, global financial hub.

The authorities moved swiftly to arrest people in connection with the fire, and last month a court sentenced four former city officials to up to 16 years in prison for corruption and abuse of power.

But a group of 21 families have hired a lawyer to push the government to release more details on the probe into the fire as well as a full listing of money donated to them by the public, which they believe was not fully distributed.

They have threaten to sue the government if their request for such information is not met, though chances for success in a country whose courts are controlled by the ruling Communist Party are very low.

“We hired a lawyer to file a lawsuit because we want a lot of information to be made available,” Wang Hong, 40, who lost his mother and wife in last November’s fire, told Reuters.

Wang said many of the families were convinced a flammable insulation material used to coat the building during the renovations caused the fire to spread quickly.

The investigation report by the State Council (Cabinet) did not mention the insulation material, Wang added.

“So many projects are using this material in Shanghai ... Many places, including schools are also using this material. We have already had such a big disaster, what if this happens again?”

There was an outpouring of grief across the city at the disaster. Many people donated money to the victims through various government and charity organizations.

The victims’ group said they had received part of the compensation money but the families worry a large portion of the donated money has not been distributed to them.

Contacted by Reuters, the Shanghai Charity Foundation, which is overseeing the donated funds, said they were still auditing the money and would fully disclose information at a later date.

An official at the news department of the Jing’an district government where the fire happened and the Shanghai Charity Foundation both said they understood the concerns of the victims group and respected their decision to opt for legal measures to resolve the issue.

Yin Xiaoqiang, 51, who lost his elderly father in the fire, said he was disappointed at how he felt the government was no longer willing to engage the victims on their requests on transparency.

“Whether the government has been transparent on these matters, we can start from this donations issue. I have seen many media reports on this matter. But there are so many other things that we can’t know,” he said.

Yin said some families had been pressured by the authorities not to join the group. But he was adamant about pushing for a lawsuit against the government.

“Personally I feel that if we file such a lawsuit, it would be quite a difficult road to take. I have taken note of some reports about us. But there is no choice. I feel this is the only road that we can take.”

Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Yoko Nishikawa

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