New Report Released on China's 'Black Jails'

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Elizabeth Dalziel / AP

A man walks through the site of a former black jail in Beijing on Nov. 11, 2009, where a young woman says she was raped while being illegally detained

China will begin to separate suspects arrested for minor offenses from violent criminals as part of a series of proposed reforms to its detention system announced this week. The system has been under fire for months, following a series of at least 15 suspicious deaths in China's extensive system of prisons and jails this year.

Lawyers and human-rights advocates welcomed the proposed changes, announced Nov. 9, which also state that detainees must be informed of their rights, can't be forced to do labor and can't be forced to pay for their detention costs. If the proposals are instituted, police or judicial officials would have to inform suspects' families within 12 hours of their detention.

In February, after 24-year-old Li Qiaoming was beaten to death by jail inmates in the southern province of Yunnan, officials said his killing was sparked by a game of hide-and-seek. The dubiousness of that explanation prompted an online outcry from concerned citizens and promises from Beijing of a nationwide review.

But experts caution that China still needs a wholesale examination of how its legal system handles detainees. A report released Nov. 12 by New York–based Human Rights Watch describes a system of "black jails" in Beijing and provincial capitals that operate outside the law, though with the implicit approval of police and judicial officials.

According to the report, the black jails are generally used to detain people who travel to Beijing and other cities to petition the government for redress of injustices faced in the countryside. The control of court systems by local officials means that they can't find justice at home. They often come to bigger cities with stories of official corruption, illegal land seizures or workplace inequities. The petition system, a remnant of the Qing Dynasty–era letters-and-visits system, is wildly ineffective, with just 3 out of 2,000 cases resolved, according to one study. Still, for poor Chinese with few connections, it is a final shot at justice.

But having citizens complain to your superiors is not good for the careers of Chinese officials. Local and regional governments arrange teams of "retrievers" who round up petitioners before they can put their complaints before higher authorities. The petitioners are held in black jails — which could be anything from a hotel to an empty school — for weeks or even months before being sent home. Human Rights Watch interviewed 38 former black-jail detainees who described beatings, sleep deprivation and lack of food and medical care. A black-jail guard went on trial in Beijing this month for allegedly raping a 21-year-old petitioner.

The difficulty in improving the treatment of people in black jails is that the government has so far refused to acknowledge that they exist. In a periodic review before the U.N. Human Rights Council in June, the Chinese government said there were no black jails in the country. "The very sinister aspect of black jails is that they are completely off the books," says Phelim Kine, an Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. "These are unlawful, secret detention facilities that are not under any due legal process. The detainees don't have access to lawyers. They are stripped of their mobile phones. They're not able to contact friends and families. People in black jails are not part of the Chinese judicial system. It's a legal black hole."

A painful irony of the black jails is that they sprang up after an earlier effort by Beijing to reform the national detention system. In 2003 a migrant worker in Guangzhou named Sun Zhigang was beaten to death while in police custody. Sun, who had been stopped for not carrying his temporary-residence certificate, was detained under a system known as "custody and repatriation." That system, a series of detention centers as well as the legal framework to hold people on administrative charges, was used to round up vagrants, beggars and petitioners.

Following a public outcry over Sun's death, the government eliminated "custody and repatriation," or shourong in Mandarin. "But vagrancy-detention-era abuses did not end with the abolition of shourong," states the Human Rights Watch report. "Instead, such abuses have been driven underground into new extrajudicial 'black jails.' " It's an unpleasant lesson in the dangers of treating the symptoms without addressing the cause.