A COURT in Beijing has sentenced ten people to up to two years in jail for illegally detaining petitioners from another city, in a rare case of the judiciary taking on those who operate on the margins of the law holding people in “black jails”.
Petitioning officials has deep roots in China, where courts are seen as beyond the reach of ordinary people. Petitioners often try to take local disputes – ranging from land grabs to corruption – to higher levels in the capital, under a system that dates back to ancient times when Chinese emperors were obliged to hear complaints brought from commoners in the provinces.
But studies have shown that only small numbers of people are ever able to resolve their cases through petitioning. In many cases, petitioners are rounded up in Beijing by men hired by provincial authorities to prevent the central government from learning of problems in outlying regions.
The ten sentenced yesterday – all from Yuzhou in the poor but populous central province of Henan – falsely imprisoned 11 petitioners, also from Henan, in two residences just outside Beijing for between two and six days last year, the official Xinhua news agency reported yesterday.
“The court ruled that Wang Gaowei and the other nine respondents had infringed the personal rights of the 11 petitioners, which constituted the crime of false imprisonment,” it said.
Those sentenced will also have to pay each petitioner up to 2,400 yuan (about £245) in compensation, it said.
Petitioners are often held in “black jails” – unlawful secret detention facilities where detainees can be subjected to beatings, sleep and food deprivation and psychological abuse.
Hong Kong-based human rights researcher Joshua Rosenzweig said the case was “probably the tip of the iceberg”.
He said the test will be whether this is a one-off, or part of a series of cases that will “effectively punish the routine detention of petitioners … and serve as a deterrent to those who might want to do the same in the future”.
Black jails are found throughout China. Petitioners report being held in run-down hotels, disused government offices, schools and in one instance, a Red Cross office.
The jails are a part of a policing system euphemistically called “stability maintenance”. Designed to weed out threats to Communist Party rule, its funding has exceeded the national defence budget for the past two years, reaching 702 billion yuan (about £72bn) last year.
This funds not just the normal criminal justice system but also pays ordinary citizens to watch potential trouble-makers, pays bounty hunters hired by local governments to catch petitioners heading to Beijing and funds black jails to hold them.
Petitioners themselves are sceptical that the Chinese leadership wants to stop the abuses, and even if it does, whether the system can change.
“What the government says and what the government does are two different things,” said Tian Lan, a former police officer turned petitioner. “They say they are concerned about petitioners and want to protect their rights, but they arrest you and put you in black jails.”
Tian lost her job ten years ago in the northern city of Handan after exposing corruption in a county police district. Turned over to that county’s police, she was jailed and tortured for a year.
Since then she has been petitioning and periodically detained, most recently last November during a sweep of petitioners ahead of the Communist Party Congress to install Xi Jinping and other new leaders.