Urn business dead loss for official
If the dead could come back to life, they might be surprised to find that compartments holding their ashes would one day bring a senior official to court.
Yang Dezhong, the former head of the Civil Affairs Bureau of Fangshan District in Beijing, was tried Tuesday for allegedly abusing his power and illegally entrusting a private firm to run a cemetery and sell the cinerary compartments used for storing urns
Thousands of people bought the compartments -- which is also against the law -- and millions of US dollars changed hands before the racket was stopped.Investigations showed that Yang signed a contract with Kui Heli, a local businessman, in 1999.
It allowed Kui to develop and operate the district's Jing'an Cemetery despite prohibition from the municipal civil affairs authority.
In order to raise money to build a nine-storey cinerarium tower, Kui began to take advance bookings for urn compartments, whose prices may rise with the passage of time, in the name of Yang's bureau in early 2000.
According to the law, a cemetery can only be operated by civil affairs authorities. People are not allowed to buy the compartments for themselves or for others who are still alive; the speculative buying and selling of such compartments are prohibited.
By the time Kui was detained by police in 2003 for operating an illegal business, he had sold more than 182,000 urn compartments to more than 3,000 people, with a total revenue of more than 80 million yuan (US$9.7 million).
The buyers, from 16 districts and counties of Beijing and even from other provinces, were lured by potential high profits. Kui promised that the buyers could sell the compartments to others; if they had failed to sell them 18 months later, the district's civil affairs bureau would buy them back for 30 per cent more than the original price, he said.
However, by August 2002, most of the buyers came to realize they had been cheated after learning the local civil affairs bureau did not plan to buy back the compartments at all.
Several buyers visited the district's government and related municipal government departments many times to appeal to local leaders for intervention.
At last, the local government in Fangshan District asked for a bank loan to buy back the compartments and legal proceedings began.
Kui was sentenced to six years in prison and fined 10 million yuan (US$1.2 million) last year.
Meanwhile, the prosecutor in Yang's case said Yang abused his power by letting Kui operate the Jing'an Cemetery and said he did not take effective measures to stop the sale of the cinerary compartments after he found out about Kui's illegal activities in 2000.
According to China's Criminal Law, government officials who abuse their power and cause economic losses can be put in prison for up to three years. When the circumstances are particularly serious, three to seven years of imprisonment may apply.
Yang's defence lawyers said Yang did not know of Kui's plot in advance, and said Yang did issue a notice urging Kui to stop selling the compartments in November 2000. Furthermore, they said, Yang did not accept any money at all in bribes from Kui.
Judges at the People's Court of Fangshan District have yet to pass sentence on the case.