Authorities in the Chinese capital detained six people and closed down a class aimed at teaching petitioners how to use the Internet, organizers said.
Hubei-based rights activist and computer expert Hu Junxiong had set up the free class two months ago in Beijing's Fangshan district to help people with complaints against the government with their computer skills.
Police raided the class premises on Monday, detaining six people and confiscating computer equipment. They returned on Tuesday, taking Hu away in a minivan, a volunteer and student at the center said.
"More than 100 police surrounded the place, and they detained me [along with the others]," Luo Zhishu told RFA's Cantonese service.
She said she was taken for questioning at the Changyang police station, near Xiying village, where large numbers of petitioners have congregated since being forced by frequent police raids and an effective ban on room rentals to leave central Beijing.
"They were asking me about what exactly Mr. Hu was teaching us to do on the computers," Luo said. "There were some petitioners who came round to hang out at the classroom the other day, and someone sent out a message [online] saying there was going to be a party."
"The next day, there were plainclothes police round here," Luo said.
She said six petitioners had been detained at the same time, including Lin Min and Peng Zhonglin.
Luo said she had been taken back to her lodgings by police the same evening, because of her heart condition.
By Tuesday morning, when she returned to the classroom, all four computers used to teach petitioners were gone, she said, adding that police came to take Hu for questioning that same day.
Many of those who pursue official complaints against government wrongdoing in their hometowns have done so to no avail for several years; some for decades. Many are middle-aged or elderly people with little or no income who rent ramshackle accommodation in Beijing's "petitioner villages."
'No legal procedure'
Another of Hu's students, Tian Lan, said she had avoided the classroom after rumors of an impending police raid began to spread among petitioners.
"All we were doing was studying here," Tian said. "We weren't fighting; why did they have to force their way in like that?"
"There was no legal procedure followed, and they confiscated all the computers and the tools to mend them, and the manuals; everything," Tian said.
"But they didn't dare issue a single notice of detention."
An officer who answered the phone at the Changyang police station on Tuesday declined to comment.
"I don't know about this," the officer said.
The rights website Weiquanwang said Lin Min would likely be sent back to his hometown in northeast China, while Beijing petitioner Peng Zhonglin sent out a message on Tuesday to say he was still being detained in another police station in Fangshan, and to ask his friends to find him a lawyer.
Large numbers of petitioners from across China were forced to leave the Beijing area entirely following a crackdown on their temporary accommodation ahead of the 18th Party Congress in November.
Landlords in Beijing were warned by the authorities that they must terminate rental contracts with out-of-town residents pursuing complaints against their local governments, with orders sent to every level of government, including district-level, village-level, and neighborhood committees.
China’s army of petitioners say they are repeatedly stonewalled, detained in “black jails,” beaten, and harassed by authorities if they try to take complaints against local government actions to higher levels of government.
The contemporary "letters and visits" system was formally established in 1951 and reinstated during the 1980s following the large number of appeals against summary verdicts handed down during the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).
China says it receives between 3 million and 4 million complaints in the form of "letters and visits" annually, with the number peaking at 12.72 million in 2003.
Reported by Lin Jing for RFA's Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.