updated 12/23/2008 3:33:15 PM ET 2008-12-23T20:33:15

A Chinese court has dismissed a lawsuit filed by parents of 58 children crushed to death when their school collapsed during May's massive earthquake, the latest setback for the parents in their quest for an apology and compensation.

The dismissal of the case and reports of threats made against the parents underscore the political sensitivity of allegations that corruption and substandard construction caused thousands of classrooms to collapse in the 7.9 magnitude quake.

While the government has promised an investigation and strict punishment for bad construction, there has been no public attempt so far to hold anyone to account.

Marches and sit-ins by grieving parents held within months of the quake were shut down by police, with some parents briefly detained.

The lawsuit was filed in December by a group of about 60 parents against school and local authorities in Sichuan province. It was registered at the Deyang People's Intermediate Court, said a parent who would only give his surname, Sang, because he was afraid of official retaliation.

"If they did not build these shoddy buildings, our children would not have died," said Sang, whose 11-year-old son was crushed to death when his classroom crumbled.

'We want to seek justice'
"We want to seek justice for them and to allow them to close their eyes in death," Sang said, using a Chinese expression that someone who dies with their eyes open cannot rest in peace due to unfinished business.

But a judge last week informed the plaintiffs that the court would not accept their case, Sang said.

Xu Peiguo, a Shanghai-based lawyer representing the parents, said 126 children were killed when the Fuxin No. 2 Primary School in Mianzhu city collapsed during the May 12 quake. Parents of 58 of the deceased children joined the lawsuit seeking an official apology and compensation, he said.

Another parent who lost his 10-year-old daughter said many parents were planning to petition the Deyang government next but that they were under pressure to let the matter rest.

The man, who would only give his surname Liu, said local government officials called him and met with him in person, trying to persuade him against petitioning.

"We felt threatened," he said.

At the People's Intermediate Court in Deyang, a woman surnamed Dai confirmed that a lawsuit had been filed against the town of Fuxin, the education department of Mianzhu, the school's principal and the company that built the school. She referred further questions to a case-filing department, which refused to take calls from the media.

Thousands of children believed dead
Thousands of children are believed to have died in their classrooms during the quake but there is no official toll. The government says 70,000 people died in Sichuan province and 7,000 classrooms were destroyed, but has avoided releasing a detailed breakdown of the fatalities.

The school collapses in particular have become a sensitive political issue, with parents — many of whom lost their only child — staging protests demanding investigations. Many of the parents say they have also been subjected to intimidation and financial inducements to silence them.

"We and our families have been investigated by police thoroughly," Sang said. "They said if they found anything wrong with us, we would be in trouble."

Sang also said police on Sunday detained one of the other parents for a day and warned him against talking to overseas media, saying those who did could face treason charges.

"We representatives are now moving constantly to hide away from the police," Sang said. "We have to live in our relatives' homes."

Sang said the group continued to grow by the day, with about 80 parents currently planning to petition the Deyang city government.

"We are reluctant to set a time for the petition now as there are too many of us. Once they find out about our plan, we won't be able to carry it out," Sang said.

In September, a Chinese government scientist acknowledged that a rush to build schools in recent years likely led to construction flaws causing so many of them to collapse — the first official admission that low construction standards may have been behind the student deaths.

Often schoolhouses were the only buildings in the area to fully collapse, and experts say China's problem, similar to that in many other parts of the world, was a lack of commitment by governments to safe schools.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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