Authorities in the Chinese capital have detained a number of petitioners from Shaanxi and Shanghai after they unfurled a banner at Tiananmen Square on behalf of jailed fellow activists.
Beijing police swooped down on more than 20 people from Shaanxi's Long county who were protesting the illegal detention of fellow petitioners in a "black jail," or unofficial detention center on the Square last week, according to a group member.
"We unfurled the national flag ... because there are ... four of us locked up in the black jail at Qiutaoshanzhuang," said the petitioner, Zhang Wuxue.
The group also tried to display a banner which read: "The victims locked up in the Qiutaoshanzhuang black jail in Shaanxi wish the central government leaders a happy new year," he said.
"The police came over and snatched away the banner, and then dragged us off to the Tiananmen Square police station," Zhang said.
The four petitioners locked up in Qiutaoshanzhuang have been there for more than a year, according to the Sichuan-based Tianwang rights website.
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.
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.
Zhang said the group had been locked in the basement of a guesthouse after being taken from the police station by representatives of their hometown of Baoji city, which oversees Long county.
"We were locked in the basement and got nothing to eat or drink, and we couldn't get out, and the security guards swore at us and beat us," Zhang said.
"Eventually we got a room in a guesthouse with the help of a travel agent."
He said that by Monday, the group had grown from around nine people to more than 20.
Several groups detained
Several groups of petitioners from Shanghai, Fuzhou, and the northeast said they had also been detained in Beijing after they tried to visit the official residence of Premier Wen Jiabao to pay traditional respects at Chinese New Year.
"I was at Tiananmen Square [on Wednesday] at 5.00 p.m," said Shanghai petitioner Wu Shihao.
"I had unfurled a banner and was also throwing leaflets around, and shouting that I would bring down corrupt official demons and fascist bandits."
"I was detained by them ... we are all being held in Jiujingzhuang," he added, referring to a petitioner detention center on the outskirts of Beijing.
"There are more than a dozen of us here, and some people have been held here for three days," said Wu, who has been pursuing allegations for six years that his neighborhood committee robbed him.
"They even took my ID card, and my pension and savings," he said. "My life is over ... I have been wandering ever since."
"I have tried to protest in Beijing several times," he said.
'Worst year yet'
Beijing-based petitioner and rights lawyer Liu Anjun said the authorities are cracking down harder on petitioners in the capital this year, compared with previous years.
"This is probably the worst year yet, and many petitioners in Beijing are facing great hardship," Liu said. "Relief work for the petitioners has also run into a lot of obstacles."
He said petitioners' protests have become more organized and more vocal as a result.
"Now they are protesting for their rights collectively, and they are very united right now," Liu said.
"Another thing is that there has been more of a crackdown on them this year, which has been the worst so far."
"According to my knowledge, a large number of petitioners have been detained, and some of them have been locked up in black jails," he said.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.