March 15, 2012

Last Friday, Al Jazeera's China correspondent Melissa Chan dropped in on a "black jail" in Beijing, one of the city's secret, unlawful detention centers that the Chinese government insists do not exist.

It was a standard black jail, housed in an empty government building in southern Beijing's Fengtai district, staffed by thuggish men in civilian clothes with sharp brush cuts and the swagger of off-duty policemen. Their job: to detain petitioners, residents of the rural countryside who come to the city seeking legal redress for miscarriages of justice. When Beijing police showed up to defuse a confrontation between the guards and a crowd of angry petitioners, the police ignored the guards and instead told the Al Jazeera crew to stop filming and leave the scene.

Petitioners are routinely abducted off the streets and held in these secret prisons where they may be subjected to physical, psychological and sexual abuse. Black jail detainees can be held from a few days to several months-and often have to bribe their way out of captivity.

Meanwhile, just across town, the annual meeting of China's National People's Congress saw the ratification yesterday of China's newly revised Criminal Procedure Law.  Deputy president of Beijing's Renmin University Wang Liming praised China's newly revised Criminal Procedure Law as "the constitutional principle of respecting and protecting human rights."

But black jails, operating outside the law and sustained through the passive or active complicity of the Chinese government and its security agencies, are immune to any tinkering with China's statutes. Despite being illegal, black jails persist due to a perverse bureaucratic incentive: local government officials are punished when there is a large flow of complaining petitioners from their areas to Beijing.

The glaring disconnect between the Chinese government's assessment of China's human rights protections and the events recorded by Al Jazeera just a few kilometers away highlight the widening gap between the government's lofty rhetoric on rule of law and the security agencies' increasing disregard for that principle. True, the newly revised Criminal Procedure Law enshrines advances in legal protections for the rights of minors and the mentally ill, and forbids confessions obtained through torture. But the same law also allows police to detain suspects in national security, terrorism or major bribery cases incommunicado for up to six months in secret locations outside of regular detention facilities, which can only fuel abuses.  The black jail captured on video by Al Jazeera is a potent reminder of the fragility and irrelevance of China's laws when security agencies at best won't enforce them or at worst actively violate them with impunity.

Human Rights Watch documented the existence of black jails and their related abuses in 2009, echoing findings by Chinese human rights organizations and human rights lawyers. Despite that evidence, the Chinese government has maintained a public stance of denial. During a March 2010 United Nations examination of China's human rights record a Chinese government official insisted that, "There are no black jails in the country." On March 13, 2012, a foreign ministry official gave that same answer to Beijing-based ITV correspondent Angus Walker, who like Al Jazeera had also stumbled upon a black jail facility that week.

In Sept. 2010, Chinese media reported the detention of two executives of a private security firm, Anyuanding, implicated in the abduction of petitioners and the operation of black jails.  But the pair was later released without being charged. Even worse, Beijing police subsequently raided the office of Caijing magazine, one of the two media organizations that reported the Anyuanding-black jail link in pursuit of their sources for the article.  Chinese police later apologized to Caijing, but the raid sent a chilling message to state media about the police position on investigating black jails.

Black jails are just one example of the willingness of China's state security agencies to perpetrate enforced disappearances - a crime under both Chinese domestic and international law - as a means of silencing citizens who challenge the authoritarian status quo. 

In early 2011, with government fears of possible of Arab spring-like "jasmine revolution" in China, state security agencies targeted more than 30 of its most outspoken critics, including the artist-activist Ai Weiwei.  The lawyers and activists were held in unknown locations for weeks, and several later reported that they were interrogated, tortured, threatened and released only after signing spurious "confessions." And for several months the government considered as part of the Criminal Procedure Law revisions a provision that would have effectively legalized such enforced disappearances; only after considerable domestic and international outcry was that dropped.

Until the Chinese government reins in the power of its security agencies- starting with a public admission of the existence of black jails and concrete moves to abolish them -  the value of China's new Criminal Procedure Law isn't worth much more than the paper it is printed on.  

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