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China's 'black jails' shove complaints into the dark

The illicit detention facilities are a way for authorities to deal with a flood of petitioners seeking justice before regional panels. Human Rights Watch says detainees face rape and other abuses.

January 11, 2010|By John M. Glionna

Reporting from Beijing — Using a crude sawed-off stick as a cane, Shi Yaping waited outside a government office, competing with a throng of petitioners to air her grievance over a neighborhood dispute.

The 59-year-old had traveled here from the central province of Hubei to take advantage of a centuries-old Chinese custom that grants citizens the right to bring unsettled complaints to a regional panel of inquiry.

Yet Shi knows well the perils of speaking her mind in China, where undercover police and mercenary thugs wait to pounce. She has twice been snatched off the street, held incommunicado on the assumption that she would eventually abandon her cause and go home.

Shi is a victim of the secretive realm of "black jails" -- unlawful detention facilities that have sprung up across China to discourage persistent petitioners considered pests by government officials.

Each year millions of rural Chinese bring their problems to functionaries in Beijing and other cities. Yet very few of their cases are ever resolved, and most end up in legal limbo, activists say.

But the torrent of cases clogs the civil system, and puts political pressure on administrators to settle them. Activists say lower-level officials have responded with organized kidnappings in which petitioners -- many plucked from the streets outside government offices -- are held in clandestine jails in state-owned hotels, nursing homes and psychiatric centers.

The theory: You can't lodge a complaint if you don't show up.

"The Chinese petitioning system is completely broken," said Phelim Kine, an Asia researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch. "And the government is outsourcing its problems to a thuggish black industry."

Since 2003, the illegal jail network has grown as top Communist Party officials looked the other way, and thousands of petitioners disappeared.

Shi arrived in Beijing months ago hoping officials would resolve her complaint that local police had illegally arrested her nephew. Instead she has found nothing but trouble.

Shi has been imprisoned twice, taken first by security forces to an isolated stockroom and held for days with 100 other people. She was eventually released with her ailing husband, and then was abducted last summer and held for several weeks at a shabby private home.

Jailers denied her requests for water and a piece of paper to swat away the maddening mosquitoes, Shi said.

Today she continues a petitioning process that dates to China's feudal times.

"The government doesn't want us to speak out about these jails," Shi said. "They're afraid the truth will come out."

In November, Human Rights Watch released a 51-page report titled "An Alleyway in Hell: China's Abusive Black Jails." It cites rapes, beatings, intimidation and extortion as among the abuses.

The report documents 43 cases of petitioners who the authors say were held without official charges or access to their families or legal counsel.

"As China tries to build a functioning legal system, this gnawing black hole for human rights grows right there on the side," said Nicholas Bequelin, a senior Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch.

After at first denying the jails' existence, the Chinese government recently acknowledged the problem. An article in the December issue of Outlook magazine, which is owned by the official New China News Agency, cited at least 73 black jails in Beijing alone.

The article says an estimated 10,000 people at a time have been detained in hundreds of jails.

The black-jail system reportedly sprang up years ago, after the government abolished another system that allowed officials to jail petitioners they considered threats.

Under the current for-profit system, private jail operators receive $22 to $44 a day per person, increasing the incentive to prolong captivity, according to the Human Rights Watch report. The fees are paid by local officials.

There were "locked steel doors and windows," according to a 53-year-old detainee quoted in the report. "We never left our rooms to eat. [Instead] we were given our meals through a small window space."

For some, being freed brings new trouble.

"You go to Beijing to claim wrongdoing by province officials but you are abducted and sent home," Bequelin said. "Well, who's waiting for you there -- the very people you tried to denounce, which brings on another round of unpleasantness."

The plight of black-jail detainees received more attention last month when a guard at an unofficial detention facility in Beijing was sentenced to eight years in prison for raping a college student who was being held.

Xu Zhiyong, a Beijing law professor and activist who has investigated the jails, said the facilities have evolved to accommodate more detainees and generate more profits.

"We have gone to videotape these places when we learn about them," he said. "We challenged the operators that they were violating the law and were beaten several times."

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