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We’ve heard it from the Chinese government a thousand times: “China is a country governed according to the rule of law,” “There are no such things as ‘black jails,’” China’s judicial system fully protects the procedural rights of lawyers.

These responses are Beijing’s way of batting back criticisms of its human rights record. But just how far these statements are removed from reality was laid bare this past week by what happened to a group of lawyers traveling to Heilongjiang province.

On March 21, four well-known Chinese human rights lawyers traveled to Heilongjiang after being hired by the family of an individual being held in a “black jail” – one of several forms of arbitrary detention still in widespread use in China.  When the lawyers got to the facility in Jiamusi City, not only were they unable to see their client, they were detained by the local police and reportedly taken to a nearby hotel.  According to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, all four lawyers were given punishments of 15 days in a formal detention center in a nearby town.

On March 27, one of the lawyers, Zhang Junjie, was released, and has since made credible allegations that he was tortured while in detention.  Courageously, he has said he will file a formal complaint over his treatment.

In abolishing the notorious system of “reeducation through labor” – another form of arbitrary detention – in November 2013, Chinese authorities noted the unconstitutionality of any deprivation of liberty that took place without the protections of a fair trial.  Yet not only do “black jails” continue to operate, police detain lawyers who are doing nothing more than going about their business.  The allegations of torture are all too plausible; the likelihood the complaint will result in disciplinary action is low. 

But if there’s a bright spot here, it’s the extraordinary courage of human rights lawyers in China.  They are increasingly the target of officials’ hostility, violence, or disregard for the law, yet they persist in trying to make the system work. This raises the need once again for an independent judicial system and accountability in China. These lawyers and other activists deserve our support.

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