May 31, 2011 / 5:25 AM / in 6 years

Tiananmen mothers say government hints at payment, no apology

<p>A paramilitary policeman stands guard near red flags on Tiananmen Square during the closing ceremony of the National People's Congress (NPC) inside the adjacent Great Hall of the People in Beijing March 14, 2011.Petar Kujundzic</p>

BEIJING (Reuters) - Mothers of people killed during pro-democracy protests near Beijing's Tiananmen Square more than two decades ago said on Tuesday authorities had raised the issue of compensation but offered no apologies or public account of the crackdown.

A group of 127 mothers signed a letter, drafted ahead of Saturday's 22nd anniversary of the military sweep of protesters in China's capital, saying public security officials had approached one unidentified victim's family twice since February about payment.

"The visitors did not speak of making the truth public, carrying out judicial investigations, or providing an explanation for the case of each victim. Instead, they only raised the question of how much to pay," the mothers said in the letter.

On June 4, 1989, after weeks of protests in Tiananmen Square, troops backed by tanks crushed the demonstrations, prompting global condemnation.

The government has never released an official casualty count, but estimates from human rights groups and witnesses range from several hundred to several thousand dead.

Yang Dongquan, head of China's State Archives Administration, told reporters on Tuesday that the government had put a 30-year lock on documents from the period.

"We're still in a waiting period," he said, on a rare official trip for foreign media to his department, down an unassuming back ally in central Beijing.

"We've not yet reached the time to open them up," Yang added. "The rules state 30 years, at least. It can still be delayed even after 30 years, if the archive authorities decide it. It's the same rule for every country."

After the crackdown, the government called the movement a "counter revolutionary" plot, but has more recently referred to it as a "political disturbance."

The Tiananmen Mothers say they have documented 203 people killed in the crackdown, but that many victims and their families have not been identified.

The group has campaigned for years for the government to open dialogue and publicly acknowledge the victims, but says its grievances have mostly been ignored despite individuals being subject to surveillance and "personal restrictions."

"The bottom line is this: the souls of those killed during June Fourth shall not be defiled; their families shall not be dishonored ... all matters can be discussed except these two," the mothers said in the letter.

"I have no information to provide you," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters on Tuesday when asked about compensation for families during a regular press briefing.

"As for the principle incident and other related issues, the Chinese Party and the government have come to a clear conclusion," she said.

The anniversary of the June 4 protests comes as popular uprisings have been sweeping across the Arab world, making the ruling Chinese Communist Party jittery about any sign of instability at home.

Issued through the U.S-based advocacy group Human Rights in China, the mothers said they were surprised that officials had initiated "private, individual conversations" with families at a time when the government is skittish about instability.

"The Chinese government has referred to these popular protest movements categorically as 'turmoil'; at no point has it mentioned the calls for freedom and democracy."

"It is afraid that the situation in the Middle East and North Africa will spread to mainland China, and worried that it will give rise to events similar to the 1989 Democracy Movement," they said, adding that the human rights situation in China was at its worst since the 1989 protests.

Reporting by Michael Martina and Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Sui-lee Wee; Editing by Ken Wills and Robert Birsel

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