A Beijing court on Wednesday ordered 10 men, believed to be working for local authorities, jailed for up to one year for "illegally detaining" a group of petitioners seeking justice from the government.
In a move that was cautiously welcomed by rights activists, the Chaoyang District People's court found 10 men guilty of illegally detaining 12 petitioners from the central province of Henan last May.
One man was jailed for a year, while the remaining nine received shorter jail terms, according to petitioners who attended the hearing.
Henan petitioner Sang Shuling, who was one of those judged to have been held illegally, said she was still unhappy at the way the case was conducted, however.
"I'm not very satisfied," she said. "Some of the main guys behind it got away ... I told the judge I had one of the name cards of the deputy head of the criminal gang ... but when I said I wanted a receipt for it he didn't want it."
"They still haven't given us a copy of the judgement," she added. "They said they'd send it to us."
China's army of millions of petitioners say they are routinely harassed, beaten, and detained in unofficial detention centers, or "black jails," if they try to pursue complaints against their local government with higher authorities.
Many detentions of petitioners are carried out by officials from their hometowns, who operate representative offices in Beijing.
In October, China issued a white paper on judicial reform that promised to address abuses of judicial power, including the mistreatment of lawyers and the controversial "re-education through labor" system.
'Passing the buck'
A second victim and witness in the case, Ding Xinfang, said she was dissatisfied with the sentencing, too.
"I'm not happy about this," Ding said. "I think they are passing the buck."
She said the illegal detentions had taken place at the Jiujingzhuang "holding center" for petitioners on the outskirts of Beijing.
"I was dragged to the side of the road by seven youths and beaten," Ding said. "They are afraid that if you leave [Jiujingzhuang], you'll just go back to petitioning again."
However, Sichuan-based rights activist Huang Qi gave a cautious welcome to the sentencing.
"At least this decision will force the unofficial kidnapping gangs to feel the fear of the law," Huang said. "Perhaps it won't be enough to prevent a wide range of kidnapping activities, but at least it shows that the government isn't prepared to offer them complete protection."
"Today's decision has enormous historic value."
Thousands of petitioners from across China have converged on the state complaints bureau in Beijing, as the authorities struggle to keep a lid on public displays of discontent during the recent once-in-a-decade leadership transition for the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Many have been trying to win redress for alleged cases of official wrongdoing—including forced evictions, beatings in custody, and corruption linked to lucrative land sales—for decades.
The contemporary "letters and visits" petitioning 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 Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.