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    Shandong Prison Officials Charged With Negligence Over COVID-19 Cluster

    Prosecutors argue the defendants’ mismanagement led to more than 200 people contracting the coronavirus at Rencheng Prison in February.

    Three officials in the eastern Shandong province have been criminally charged for failing to prevent one of the earliest coronavirus outbreaks at a Chinese prison, local judicial authorities announced Wednesday.

    Liu Baoshan, former head of the Rencheng Prison; his deputy, Deng Tihe; and Wang Wenjie, former vice director of the provincial prison administration have all pleaded guilty to the charge of dereliction of duty. The courts in Jinan and Jining have not yet issued their verdicts.

    In February, 207 confirmed COVID-19 cases were reported at Rencheng Prison. The same month, hundreds of inmates and guards in the central Hubei and eastern Zhejiang provinces also tested positive for the virus, raising concerns that prison environments were conducive to spreading the disease.

    According to the Shandong prosecutors, the three officials’ failures to properly carry out their duties had “led to the spread of the disease in Rencheng Prison, resulting in major harm to public property, the interests of the country, and its people.” Liu and Deng were accused of neglecting to monitor the health of staff members and inmates, as well as failing to control large gatherings in the prison.

    Wang’s case was heard by the Jinan Intermediate People’s Court, while Liu’s and Deng’s trials took place at the Jining Intermediate People’s Court.

    According to Zhao Chunyu, deputy head of the Beijing Lawyers Association’s criminal law committee, dereliction of duty occurs when a civil servant or other government employee causes unintended harm due to their own negligence. Under China’s Criminal Law, such individuals face up to three years in prison for most cases, or up to seven years for severe cases.

    “It is highly likely that the incident at Rencheng Prison will be deemed severe, given the harmful consequences of the spread of the disease, as well as the emergency situation it created and its effect on the public,” she told Sixth Tone.

    But Song Lijun, a corrections officer-turned-academic specializing in prison studies, argued that the prison officials should not be held criminally liable for their mismanagement during the early stages of the epidemic, considering the complexity of prison work and the fact that, at the time, there was still much the country didn’t understand about the new disease.

    “We shouldn’t discriminate against prison officers,” Song told Sixth Tone. “If (government) officials in Wuhan were only dismissed, then prison officers should receive the same punishment. Officials should all be treated fairly, right?”

    On Wednesday, two more prison staff members — Chen Minhua and Dai Guanghui — also pleaded guilty at a Rencheng District court in Jining to disrupting disease prevention efforts. They are being charged with failing to truthfully disclose vital information.

    An official investigation concluded that Chen, a prison guard, had exposed others to the virus in late January, and had kept in close contact with dozens of inmates and his colleagues despite showing symptoms of COVID-19. Meanwhile, Dai did not disclose that his family had received a visitor from Wuhan — a city that was by that point under lockdown to contain its massive outbreak — to government contact-tracers.

    Both men ultimately tested positive for COVID-19 after infecting others. Zhao, the lawyer, said Chen and Dai would likely face up to three years’ imprisonment, depending on how directly their actions contributed to spreading the virus.

    Editors: Bibek Bhandari and David Paulk.

    (Header image: A view of the courtroom during Wang Wenjie’s trial in Jinan, Shandong province, Nov. 4, 2020. From 济南中院 on WeChat)