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China: Enforced Disappearances a Growing Threat

Move to ‘Legalize’ Threatens Lawyers, Activists, Civil Society

(Hong Kong) - Enforced disappearances by the Chinese government’s security agencies have soared as a means to silence perceived dissent, Human Rights Watch said today at a news conference in Hong Kong. The government has failed to address the growing problem and is instead attempting to effectively legalize that unlawful practice through a revision to the country’s Criminal Procedure Law, Human Rights Watch said.

Under international law, a state commits an enforced disappearance when its agents take a person into custody and then deny holding the person or fail to disclose the person’s whereabouts. Family members and legal representatives are not informed of the person’s whereabouts, well-being, or legal status. “Disappeared” people are often at high risk of torture, a risk even greater when they are detained outside of formal detention facilities such as prisons and police stations.

“Despite a few weak gestures of disapproval, the Chinese government has largely ignored or tacitly approved the security agencies’ proclivity for enforced disappearance and ‘black jails,’” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “That inaction has encouraged China’s security agencies to increasingly make enforced disappearances their tactic of choice. The proposed legal revisions are a clear indication of the government’s intentions.”

In November 2009, Human Rights Watch exposed in detail the use of enforced disappearance by government officials and their agents in confining thousands of petitioners – citizens from the rural countryside seeking legal redress in Beijing and other cities – in unlawful secret detention facilities known as “black jails.” The detainees are routinely subjected to physical and psychological abuse, including beatings, sexual violence, food and sleep denial, and extortion. Yet two years later, black jails continue to operate in Beijing and other major Chinese cities.

Shortly after the November 12, 2009 release of HRW’s report “‘An Alleyway in Hell’: China’s Abusive ‘Black Jails,’” the Chinese weekly newsmagazine, Outlook (瞭望周刊), produced by China’s official Xinhua News Agency, ended the Chinese government’s routine denial of the existence of black jails by publishing an article that echoed the Human Rights Watch findings. The Outlook article urged the Chinese government to put an end to black jails on the grounds that such an illegal system “damages the legitimate rights of petitioners and seriously damages the government’s image.” Two months later, the Chinese government ordered the closure of local government “liaison offices” in Beijing that have often been used as black jail sites.

Despite that expression of support by elements within the Chinese government to end black jail-related abuses, the government has failed to stop the practice, Human Rights Watch said.

Below is a timeline of major black jails-related developments since November 2009.

  • January 19, 2010: the State Council, China’s cabinet, issued a directive to local governments to close their Beijing “liaison offices,” which are often used as “black jails,” due to corruption concerns.


  • March 19, 2010: Luo Cheng, third secretary of the Permanent Mission of China to the United Nations in Geneva asserted in a verbal statement delivered during the General Debate on agenda 6 on UPR, 13th regular session of the Human Rights Council that, “There are no black jails in the country.”


  • September 24, 2010: Caijing magazine (财经)and the Southern Metropolis Daily (南方都市报)newspaper, two of China’s most progressive print media publications, publish a joint article on a private firm, Anyuanding Security Technology service, implicated in the abduction of petitioners off the streets of Beijing and the operation of black jails to confine them. Within days, Beijing police raided the offices of Caijing to demand that the magazine reveal the sources for the article. Beijing police subsequently apologized for the raid.


  • September 27, 2010: State media report the detention of the Anyuanding chairman, Zhang Jun, and the company’s general manager, Zhang Jie, for “illegally detaining people and illegal business operations.” The government has not provided any updated information on the status of the investigation.


  • August 3, 2011: State media report on the discovery by Beijing municipal police of a black jail in the city’s Changping district that had illegally detained more than 50 petitioners including “elderly people and babies.” A public security official described the black jail as “one isolated case.”


  • September 21, 2011: State media expose the failure of the January 2010 government initiative to close down local government liaison offices in Beijing linked to black jail operations. Many of the 625 offices targeted for closure remain open, with some disguising their operations as hotels.


The government’s security forces use enforced disappearance to silence and intimidate critics of Chinese government policies in ethnic minority regions of Tibet and Xinjiang. These forces detained thousands of ethnic Tibetans in Tibet and the neighboring provinces of Gansu, Yunnan, Qinghai, and Sichuan following protests that erupted across the Tibetan plateau in March 2008. The Chinese government has refused to disclose to the United Nations, the United States, and independent human rights groups the fate of hundreds of Tibetans arrested during the protests, or how many it has detained, sentenced, held pending trial, or sentenced to extrajudicial forms of detention, such as re-education through labor (RTL). Human Rights Watch research has revealed that dozens, and possibly many more, of the hundreds of people detained by Chinese security forces in the aftermath of bloody ethnic violence in the city of Urumqi on July 5 to 7, 2009, have also “disappeared” without a trace.

The government has compounded its use of black jails with a wave of unlawful disappearances of lawyers, civil society activists, artists, and bloggers since early 2011. The government targeted over 30 of its most unspoken critics and held them in unknown locations for weeks.

Among them was the contemporary artist and outspoken government critic Ai Weiwei(艾未未), whose disappearance on April 3 generated an international outcry that ultimately contributed to his release on bail on June 22. Most of the other activists were also ultimately released, but were forced to adopt a much less vocal stance for fear of being disappeared, arrested, or tortured. Several of the lawyers detained during this period, including Liu Shihui (刘士辉), subsequently gave accounts about how they were interrogated, tortured, and threatened, and only released upon signing “confessions” and pledges not to use Twitter or talk to the media, human rights organizations, or foreign diplomats about their detention.

“The surge in enforced disappearances since early 2011 suggests that the government perceives such violations of basic human rights and due legal process as a useful tool to terrorize outspoken critics rather than as a tactic to be eradicated,” Richardson said.

That impression has been solidified by proposed revisions to the Criminal Procedure Law, announced on August 30, that will effectively “legalize” enforced disappearances. The proposed revisions would empower China’s security agencies to detain certain criminal suspects secretly for up to six months in undisclosed locations in cases the police deem to involve state security, terrorism, or serious instances of corruption. The revisions would permit law enforcement authorities to keep this detention secret if they believed notifying relatives or a lawyer could “hinder the investigation.” The proposed legislation could also lead to a formalization of house arrest – “soft detention” in police parlance, which is routinely imposed on activists and dissidents without trial and, in the instance of the human rights defender Chen Guangcheng (陈光诚)and his family, since the conclusion of his prison sentence in September 2010.

Chinese human rights activists, lawyers, and legal experts have warned that the proposed revisions, which may be approved in early 2012, would violate China’s international legal obligations. Although China has yet to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), its signing of that document in 1998 obliges it not to take steps that would undermine the standards set out there. The ICCPR states that, “Anyone arrested or detained on a criminal charge shall be brought promptly before a judge or other officer authorized by law to exercise judicial power and shall be entitled to trial within a reasonable time or to release.” The ICCPR further provides that, “Anyone who is deprived of his liberty by arrest or detention shall be entitled to take proceedings before a court, in order that that court may decide without delay on the lawfulness of his detention and order his release if the detention is not lawful.”

“Chinese and international legal scholars have devoted years to trying to bring China’s laws and legal system in line with international standards, but the proposed revisions are an about face,” Richardson said. “The proof of the Chinese government’s commitment to the rule of law would be to end arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances, not to legalize them.”

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