A Beijing court yesterday sentenced 10 people to prison for illegally detaining citizens trying to take their local grievances to the central government, state media reported, in a possible sign the government is trying to rein in abuses.
Illegal detention of petitioners is believed to be common, but is, like all legal and public order issues in China, a matter of great sensitivity. Such petitioners are frequently intercepted by local government agents and detained illegally in shabby hostels known as “black jails.”
The government has recently begun acknowledging the existence of such places as part of modest attempts to stamp out the most glaring abuses of power.
It has also said it will stop handing down labor camp sentences this year under a system that allows police to lock up petitioners, government critics and others for up to four years without a trial, although details are still unclear.
In yesterday’s case, 11 petitioners from Henan Province had traveled to Beijing hoping to air their grievances under a system that harkens back to ancient times, when Chinese emperors were obligated to hear complaints brought from commoners in the provinces.
Four of the petitioners arrived in Beijing on April 28 last year, were intercepted by the defendants and forcefully driven to a rented house where they spent one night before being sent back to Henan, Xinhua news agency said. They then returned to the capital and reported the incident to the police. When officers arrested the defendants on May 2, they also released the other petitioners who had been holed up in a house for up to six days.
A photograph on Xinhua’s Web site showed a single-story brick house with a window covered up from the inside and bikes, a sofa and a clothes line in the yard outside.
Xinhua said the seven adult and three juvenile defendants received sentences ranging from two years to six months. It said the defendants — farmers from Henan — rounded up the petitioners and illegally detained them in violation of their rights.
The case is “certainly significant, but it’s also probably the tip of the iceberg,” Hong Kong-based human rights researcher Joshua Rosenzweig said.
The test will be whether this is just a one-off, or “one of a series of cases that will effectively punish the routine detention of petitioners, particularly in Beijing, but in other parts of China as well, and serve as a deterrent to those who might want to do the same in the future,” he said.
The defendants were hired by a person called Fu Zhaoxin, who is the subject of a separate case, according to Xinhua, but it was unclear who he was.
Beijing’s Chaoyang District Court referred calls to the Beijing High Court’s foreign affairs office, where calls rang unanswered. Calls to Wen Yu He court, a sub-branch of Chaoyang court where the verdict was reportedly announced, were also not answered.
Stopping people from traveling to Beijing to complain has become a priority for local officials, who are graded for promotion in part on their ability to keep the peace.
While Beijing is home to some of the most notorious black jails, they are found throughout China. Petitioners report being held in run-down hotels, disused government offices, schools and, at least in one instance, a Red Cross office. They are a part of a policing system that goes under the euphemism “stability maintenance.” Funding for “stability maintenance” has exceeded the national defense budget for the past two years, reaching 702 billion yuan (US$110 billion) last year.