Thu, Aug 13, 2009 - Page 9 News List

‘Black jails’: A place where out-of-towners are taught a lesson

There is an age-old tradition in China of appealing to the central government in person. For some local authorities, the solution is interception and assault

By Alexa Olesen  /  AP , BEIJING

The 20-year-old student spoke softly but firmly as she described how a dispute over grades led to her rape at an unofficial jail.

She had been expelled from college because of poor exam scores, so she went to Beijing to petition the central government to reinstate her. Thousands of Chinese travel to Beijing every year to air complaints ignored by local authorities, ranging from real estate scams to wrongful death cases.

But shortly after the student arrived, she was picked up by police. She was delivered to a run-down hotel and dumped in a locked room filled with other detainees. There, a guard raped her.

The student’s case has put a spotlight on China’s “black jails,” where rights groups say growing numbers of people seeking justice from the government end up. Rights groups say these petitioners are routinely chased by provincial officials or thugs-for-hire, who round them up before they can reach the central government. The officials fear the complaints may cost them a promotion or a job or trigger investigations.

Hong Kong-based advocacy group Chinese Human Rights Defenders has documented more than a dozen black jails in Beijing, where hundreds of people are routinely held against their will, said researcher Wang Songlian (王松漣). Many, like the large store room where the student was detained, are in shabby hotels. Another well-known one is in an abandoned factory.

“Some are fitted with bars,” Wang said. “Often the conditions are very poor ... there is no limit to how long you could be held.

“You could also be mistreated, not fed, not able to see a doctor. You could be beaten, we have recorded cases of that,” she said.

The black jails mushroomed in the capital ahead of the Beijing Olympics last year because local officials were particularly anxious about petitioners using the high-profile event to publicize their grievances, Wang said. It has continued and apparently expanded since then, she said, amid pressure from Beijing on provinces to handle grievances themselves.

The various black jails tend to hold petitioners from specific areas of the country. While the central government does not have a direct role in managing them, it has not cracked down either, despite evidence of collusion between law enforcers and the people who run the jails.

The government denies they even exist.

Song Hansong (宋寒松), a representative from China’s highest prosecutor’s office, told the UN Rights Council earlier this year there was “no such things as black jails in our country.”


The former college student sat in a park near a Beijing police station as she told her story. Several times during the interview, she said she was afraid, and at the end she grabbed a reporter’s arm and begged her not to leave.

“I am afraid, afraid because I’ve never even dated or had a boyfriend, never done anything sexual,” she said, in a calm but incredulous voice.

She said she arrived in Beijing on July 31 after a 10-hour train journey from Jieshou in Anhui Province. She came to complain that her college expelled her and refused to let her switch to another major.

She was picked up by police on Monday last week near Tiananmen Square and taken to an assistance center on the south side of the city. There, she was handed over to men who said they would give her a place to stay, then take her back to her hometown.

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