Eighty percent of people held in China's unofficial detention centers, or "black jails," are female, and many suffer routine abuse at the hands of their captors, according to a report published on Tuesday by the overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) group.
Published as Beijing's women's rights record comes up for review by the United Nations, the report documents around 1,000 cases of secret detention and abuse of women in the country's black jails, which are often used to silence those pursuing complaints against the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Titled, "We’ll Beat You to Death With Impunity," the report highlights the case of Ding Hongfen, who will stand trial in the eastern province of Jiangsu on Saturday for "intentional damage to property," after she helped organize a jailbreak to free 12 people being held in a black jail.
With the help of other activists, Ding—herself a former black jail inmate—broke into the facility in Jiangsu's Wuxi city in June 2013 and helped the detainees to escape.
Ding and the others are facing likely prison time in retaliation for uncovering the “black jail” and for the daring rescue, CHRD said in a statement on its website.
According to the report, black jails are now beginning to replace the abolished "re-education through labor" camps, a police-run system of administrative sentences used to lock up perceived troublemakers without trial.
CHRD described black jails as "a wide array of holding cells where an individual can be detained for an indeterminate period of time on orders of government officials, without any legal recourse."
It said many of the women held in black jails are among the most vulnerable in Chinese society, including the elderly, migrant workers, forced evictees, women with disabilities, and mothers with young children.
Sexual abuse of inmates is rife, the report found.
"Inside these shadowy detention cells, the predominantly female detainees ... are subjected to appalling abuses, from physical and sexual assaults to deprivation of medical treatment," CHRD said.
"We call them ‘black jails’ because they’re illegal, often in secret locations, they’re covered up by the government, and their victims are silenced," CHRD international director Renee Xia said in a statement emailed to RFA.
"The fact that these sprawling facilities disproportionately affect women testifies to the widespread state-sponsored violence against women," she added.
The group quoted a Chinese official as saying that "there is no such thing" as black jails during testimony to the United Nations, and called on the government to acknowledge the existence of such facilities, which include large holding centers like Majialou and Jiujingzhuang used to detain petitioners who try to pursue complaints in Beijing.
It said routine abuse of women was of particular concern.
"Typically guarded by males, women are more likely than men to encounter physical, sexual, and verbal abuses and threats," the report said, adding that many of the women held in black jails have traveled a long way from home to pursue justice for themselves or their families.
"Women are also more likely to be detained and abused for the purposes of intimidating or punishing members of their family," the report said.
Black jails are often created on an ad-hoc basis by interceptors, who take over part of a hotel or guest-house, but who refuse to let the "guests" leave, the report said.
In early 2013, a group of lawyers and rights activists counted a total of 96 unofficial detention centers in Wuxi alone, it said.
Many of them ostensibly provide "legal education," and many are converted from existing facilities, including schools, army bases, athletic facilities, guesthouses, hotels, storage facilities, and abandoned residences, it said.
CHRD cited the case of Li Zhiyan from the northern province of Hebei and her daughter Zhang Zijuan, who it said have been held illegally for nearly six years in Baoding city.
The pair have been held in government offices, a firefighting unit, a courtyard in a rural area, and a nursing home, and are believed to be still detained in spite of a campaign by relatives for their release.
Calls for release
The report comes days after the wife of a prominent ethnic Mongolian dissident called on Chinese president Xi Jinping to release her husband from a "black jail," where he has been held since his release from a 15-year jail term on charges of "separatism" and "espionage."
Xinna, wife of Hada, said the family fears for his health and safety after the authorities refused to allow family visits in July.
Last month, an RFA listener surnamed Li said he had helped stage a sit-in outside the Shidai Guesthouse in the northern port city of Tianjin after the elderly parents of Tianjin petitioner Zhang Lanying were incarcerated there by officials.
"Local citizens successfully occupied this black jail," Li told RFA's Voice of the People call-in show. "They sat at the door, wearing specially printed T-shirts, and they posted a lot of photographs online," he said.
And in August, a court in the Chinese capital tried two men for the unlawful detention and injury of a petitioner from the eastern province of Anhui, who says he was tortured inside a black jail.
Wang Weilong said he was dragged away by the men outside the Supreme People's Court in Beijing after filing a petition in 2012.
He told local media at the time that more than a dozen petitioners from other provinces were kept at the black jail during his incarceration there, and has blamed interceptors sent by local governments to muzzle complaints about them in Beijing.
Nearly 20,000 grievances are filed daily to complaints offices across China in person, according to official figures released last November, mostly by middle-aged or elderly people with little or no income.
Those who do pursue complaints against the government—often for forced evictions, loss of farmland, accidents, or death and mistreatment in custody—say they are repeatedly stonewalled, detained in black jails, and beaten or harassed by the authorities.
The U.N.'s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) will review China's record in protecting the rights of women and girls this month.
CHRD called on international agencies to put pressure on Beijing to end all extralegal detentions of women and set free all detainees in black jails, hold the perpetrators legally accountable, and provide reparations to victims.
Reported by Jill Ku for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.