Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Population

RIGHTS: China’s Secret ‘Black Jails’ Hold Sordid Tales of Injustice

Gordon Ross

BEIJING, May 26 2010 (IPS) - In 2003, a number of Xu Cong Yang’s possessions – including jewelry and a rare stamp collection – went missing. The culprit, he believed, was a company owned by the local government in a central Chinese city that Xu had enlisted to insure the items.

Petitioner Xu Cong Yang holds images of himself bloodied and bruised as a result of his detention in one of China's 'black jails'. Credit: Gordon Ross/IPS

Petitioner Xu Cong Yang holds images of himself bloodied and bruised as a result of his detention in one of China's 'black jails'. Credit: Gordon Ross/IPS

The company denied any wrongdoing, and when he tried to take his case to the local court, he was detained and beaten by men he said were hired by the insurer. Five years later, in 2008, he was still seeking justice, now in Beijing. In the lead-up to the Beijing Olympic Games, Xu was taken to an illegal holding facility, where he was held in a small room alone for three months.

“I was starved every day,” Xu told IPS in an interview at a Beijing café, holding laminated photos of himself bloodied and bruised, which he said were taken after the first beating he suffered in 2003. “I was given very little to eat. I was in handcuffs all the time.” He still has scars on his wrists.

Secretive and makeshift “black jails,” as they are often called, are used to stop petitioners from taking their grievances to authorities in Beijing and other cities. According to a report released last November by New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), petitioners in China are routinely incarcerated without due process in these illegal jails, where they are allegedly beaten and sometimes raped by their captors.

The jails are often sparsely furnished rooms with barred windows in the basements of apartment buildings or in official buildings in suburbs. Hotels, nursing homes and psychiatric centres also serve as unofficial prisons. Petitioners, who travel to Beijing to lodge complaints with the central government, are captured and held by unofficial guards sent by provincial or district authorities, who are embarrassed that citizens under their jurisdiction are seeking help from Beijing, the report said.

Black jails have become a cottage industry in China, charging provincial officials about 300 renminbi (about 44 U.S. dollars) per day to hold petitioners. HRW estimates that 10,000 people are held in detention centres each year, and many are held more than once. The 38 petitioners interviewed by HRW reported being deprived of food and sleep and subjugated to threats and acts of violence.

“I asked why they were detaining me, and as a group [the guards] came in and punched and kicked me and said they wanted to kill me,” said one former detainee interviewed in the report.

Petitioning is a centuries-old tradition that grants citizens the right to bring unsettled complaints to a higher level of government. In 1949, a government agency was established to process petitions, and in 1954, departments under the central government were set up at provincial, county and city levels to receive letters and visits.

Petitioners lack a strong support network and must rely on each other for help, especially those in Beijing, said Wang Songlian, research coordinator for China Human Rights Defenders, a non-profit network of grassroots activists. “They’ve been petitioning for so many years they’re alienated from their families and the people they interact with,” she told IPS.

Last October, black jails came to public attention after a 21-year-old woman who was raped by a security guard reported the incident to police, who pursued the case. The guard was later sentenced to eight years in prison.

Since 2003, thousands of petitioners have disappeared while government officials have looked the other way, the HRW study said.

“Things like this don’t exist in China,” a Ministry of Foreign Affairs official said at a press conference last April, according to HRW. A Chinese government report in June 2009 to the United Nations stated, “There are no black jails in China.”

Last December, however, the government finally acknowledged the problem. A report in the December issue of ‘Outlook’ magazine, which is owned by the state-run Xinhua News Agency, found that there were 73 black jails in Beijing alone.

Liu Jie is a leading advocate for petitioner’s rights in China, and was once one herself. In 1997, a local official in north-east China’s Heilongjiang province tried to extort money from Liu. When her protests at local courts were ignored, she traveled to Beijing, where she was detained in a black jail and beaten.

In 2007, she was sent to a Helongjiang labour camp for 18 months in retaliation for distributing public letters calling for government reform. In the camp she was put in solitary confinement, beaten and denied food and waters for periods of up to five days.

Today, Liu, 58, continues to fight for petitioners’ rights despite injuries incurred while in prison. She helps organise accommodation and financial assistance and spearheads legal battles.

It is an uphill battle for Liu and others like her. Her activities are monitored and even within the ranks of petitioners there are spies who report back to the government.

“The government says rooms cannot be rented to petitioners,” Liu told IPS. “They are followed everywhere. They don’t have resources – no money, no power.”

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