“Alleyway in Hell” – a report on China’s black jails
The majority of black jail detainees are petitioners-citizens from rural areas who come to Beijing and provincial capitals seeking redress for abuses ranging from illegal land grabs and corruption to police torture. Petitioners, as citizens who have done nothing wrong-in fact, who are exercising their legal right to complain of being wronged themselves-are often persecuted by government officials, who employ security forces and plainclothes thugs known as retrievers or jiefang renyuan, to abduct them, often violently, and then detain them in black jails. Plainclothes thugs often actively assist black jail operators and numerous analysts believe that they do so at the behest of, or at least with the blessing of, municipal police.
Human rights abuses related to China’s black jails bear a striking similarity to those of the official compulsory custody-and-repatriation, or shourong qiansong, system, which the government abruptly abolished in June 2003. Shourong, a vagrancy detention system, legally allowed police to detain “undesirables”-mostly petitioners, but also including beggars and any individuals who lacked official identification papers-and to transfer them to official “relief and repatriation” centers where they were held for a short period of time before being returned to their home districts. Researchers reported that extralegal black jails began operating within months of the abolition of the vagrancy detention system.
Let’s be clear, the people held there aren’t criminals – they aren’t even political dissidents. They’re ordinary people trying to seek relief in Beijing when they can’t get it at the local level.
Police/central government involvement
The Police are accused of being implicit in the system, not just turning a blind eye because the petitioners “disrupt stability” but even assisting in detaining petitioners.
Such police indifference to the plight of black jail detainees is common, according to a Beijing-based legal expert who has researched the problem of black jails.
“Local police don’t help. Local government officials often have relationships with the Beijing police, so Beijing police don’t interfere [in black jail operations]. Police see petitioners as “disrupting stability” and also [refuse to act] due to jurisdictional issues; they leave [petitioners in black jails] to the local government officials.”
A former detainee from Jiangsu province told Human Rights Watch that municipal police showed up at the black jail facility located in a Beijing hotel where he was held and “made a report,” but then departed without explanation and without freeing him from custody. Another former detainee said that Beijing police did not respond to his “110” calls for assistance after he was detained by Heilongjiang petitioning officials in a black jail facility in a central Beijing building. A woman from Heilongjiang province detained in a Ministry of Social Affairs building in her home province said that when she contacted police for assistance, they candidly explained that they had no power to intervene in cases of black jail detentions.
“[Your detention] is the desire of upper levels [of government], and if you have opinions about that when this is over, consult the city government authorities or the mayor to solve. Anything that happens inside [black jails] we can’t go to investigate and [we] can’t solve any of your problems.”
Further to the disturbing suggestion in this purported conversation that senior officials/politicians support these detentions, the report says that the central government supports such actions to stop petitioners disturbing “social harmony and stability” ahead of important dates/events, such as the National Day celebrations in October this year.
Al Jazeera conducted its own investigation into black jails earlier this year, talking with Xu Zhiyong amongst other people. It includes part of an interview, where the central government is accused of deliberately giving people false hope about the petition system.
Wang Songlian, the research director of China Human Rights Defenders, told Al Jazeera that some facilities in Beijing functioned as centralised black jails and were used to house petitioners caught by Beijing police.
“Officials or staff in these centralised black jails would register the petitioners and then send them to the appropriate black jails organised by local authorities,” she said. “So this is actually quite an organised and systematic system in which petitioners are sent from one black jail to another in order to punish them for bringing their complaints.”
She said the central government used the petitioning system to give citizens hope, but had no interest in hearing their complaints or to address them.
“When people suffer injustice they can go to court to sue the local officials, but because of the dependence of the court on the local government it is not impartial,” she said. “The other option is for people to escalate their complaints [by petitioning] to the higher authority in the hope of getting some redress.”
China’s official media often carries reports about petitions being addressed by local governments.
“The government has an interest in keeping people’s hope in the petitioning system alive,” said Wang. “Otherwise they will have all that pent-up anger in them and not have any outlet.“
There is a video on the Al Jazeera report here, including where the reporter discovered a black jail and heard the screams of someone asking for help.
Abuse against petitioners
Petitioners may be subject to severe physical abuse.
A 46-year-old former detainee from Jiangsu province who was abducted off of a Beijing street and forcibly returned to Jiangsu to spend 37 days in a black jail cried with fear and frustration as she recalled her abduction during an interview with Human Rights Watch.
“[The abductors] are inhuman. Their car drove up to that place [where I was] and two people dragged me by the hair and put me into the car. My two hands were tied up and I couldn’t move. Then [after arriving back in Jiangsu] they put me inside a room where there were two women who stripped me of my clothes… [and] beat my head [and] used their feet to stomp my body.”
Women have also been raped, medical treatment and food has been withheld. Even asking for toilet paper supposedly led to someone receiving a beating. The report states that even children have been held in some of these facilities. Even after release, petitioners are expect to obey and not cause further “trouble” by trying to petition again.
Almost half of the former black jail detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported having been threatened with violence or extended incarceration during their detention, to discourage future petitioning efforts. One example of a very specific threat was related to us by a 36-year-old former detainee from Chongqing municipality, held from April 18, 2008, to October 23, 2008, in a black jail facility located in a local nursing home. “Upon my release, [the guards] said if I didn’t sign a ‘no petitioning’ guarantee, they’d put me in a nursing home until I died, cremate my remains and not let anyone know [what happened to me]”. A 54-year-old former detainee from Jiangsu province, held from September 23, 2008, to November 12, 2008, in a black jail located in a Beijing hotel compound, said: “I was forced to write a [no petitioning] guarantee certificate. [My captors] said ‘If you petition in the future, according to the guarantee certificate, we can break your legs.’
The report goes on to clearly detail that all of this is illegal under Chinese law, not just morally abhorant.
Apart from the brutality of the jails and the wickedness of those who run and cooperate with the running of the jails/detention of petitions, the way that the Chinese government still keeps denying the jails exist is also shameful (especially given that the black jails are hardly a secret in China). Previously I was willing to give the central government the benefit of the doubt on this matter, but the refusal to admit to what is going on is sickening.
Whatever reason for the denials, the government needs to stop pretending and take immediate action. The people there have broken no law that we know of and are simply trying to exercise a right to appeal they supposedly have. There can be no justification for allowing this practice to continue. The report has a list of recommendations for the government.
Admit the existence of black jails; close them and set detainees at liberty; and punish any person who abducts and detains another unlawfully or who operates or facilitates the operation of a black jail.
The Chinese government’s denial of the existence of black jails only ensures that abuses will continue and those who operate the jails will continue to go unpunished. Elimination of black jails should be a high priority for the country’s leaders, who should allow the problem to be exposed through the national media to magnify deterrence, and who should announce swift and decisive measures to identify and locate black jails, liberate the detainees, and prosecute any individuals complicit in the abduction, detention, and abuse of persons in secret black jail facilities.
Because Public Security Bureau personnel have been complicit in the operation of black jails in Beijing and other cities, the Ministry of Public Security should consider creating an independent investigatory taskforce with the necessary manpower and legal heft to hold perpetrators to account.
Officials should also permit and seek input and assistance on the eradication of black jails from the United Nations’ Committee against Torture and the United Nations’ Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
Initiate a mass public education campaign about the legal rights of petitioners, the criminality of efforts to abduct, detain, and abuse them in black jails, and the due process rights of all criminal suspects under Chinese law and international instruments.
Chinese authorities should ensure that all officials and members of the security forces are aware of the legal rights of petitioners and the illegality of extrajudicial abduction, detention, and abuse of detainees in black jails.
The government should remind officials and security forces of their obligations to protect the legal rights of all citizens, including petitioners, and the potentially severe legal penalties that abuse of those rights entails.
Establish an independent commission to investigate and publicly report on the existence of black jails and government efforts to eradicate them.
The commission should investigate the failure of the Chinese government at central, regional and local levels to enforce existing laws that outlaw black jails. The commission should be given unfettered access to any government records on black jails, as well as the authority to hold public hearings to collect testimony from former black jail detainees, government officials, and members of the security forces or plainclothes thugs operating at official behest who are suspected of involvement in the abduction, detention, and abuse of petitioners in black jail facilities.
The commission should invite the participation of domestic and international organizations, including the United Nations’ Committee against Torture and the United Nations’ Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, with knowledge and expertise pertinent to investigating and eradicating black jails.
- Establish a fund to compensate former black jail detainees who have suffered physical, sexual, and psychological abuse by their captors. This fund should also be used to assist former detainees in pursuing criminal and civil claims against their former captors.
Establish a new nationwide unit within the Public Security Bureau dedicated to investigating criminal abuses against petitioners.
This special police unit should be given legal authority to respond to reports of abuses of the rights of petitioners as well as the authority to enter premises which they have probable cause to believe are being used to house a black jail. This special police unit should include a rapid reaction squad available 24 hours a day. The government should also create a special 24-hour telephone hotline for petitioners to report any abuses to the new police unit.
Eliminate the linkage between local and regional government officials’ performance evaluations and the numbers of petitioners seeking legal redress in Beijing and other cities.
The current civil service evaluation system effectively punishes local and regional government officials for the presence of petitioners from their areas in Beijing. This system encourages the use of extrajudicial methods such as black jails to detain petitioners found in Beijing and is incompatible with the Chinese government’s frequent assertions of the primacy of human rights and rule of law.
Establish an independent commission to examine and evaluate the adequacy of the petitioning system in effectively identifying and addressing citizens’ grievances.
- The inadequacy of China’s petitioning system contributes to China’s black jail problem. The Chinese government should establish an independent commission to determine whether the petitioning system is capable of addressing the grievances of its citizens given China’s rapid modernization and unprecedented social and economic change. The commission should consider the abolition of the petitioning system, but only if urgently needed legal reforms are enacted and implemented to enable Chinese citizens to fairly and efficiently pursue legal redress through local courts.
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