China Vows To Improve Rights

China launches a national plan to improve the civil, economic, and political rights of its citizens over the next two years.

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Taiyuan Bans Petitioners from Beijing 305 Chinese petitioners outside a courthouse in Beijing, April 3, 2008.
HONG KONG—China's cabinet pledged Monday to improve human rights protection for its citizens, including hiring public supervisors to oversee the country's prison and detention system, guaranteeing the right of journalists to write critical material, and televising trials.

“China still confronts many challenges and has a long road ahead in its efforts to improve its human rights situation,” according to the text of Beijing's “Human Rights Action” plan, which aims to boost protection for civil, political, and economic rights over the next two years.

The move comes in the wake of public outrage—mostly expressed on the Internet—in recent months at deaths in police custody, controls over online freedom of expression, and the plight of China's “petitioners,” who seek to lodge complaints against alleged official wrongdoing through legal channels.

Last week, a group of civil rights organizations issued an open letter protesting the "illegal exercise of police power and the rude violation of Chinese citizens' personal freedom."

Calling for reforms of China's authoritarian one-party political system, the April 3 letter was signed by eight groups promoting civil rights.

It called on the ruling party not to "trample the Chinese Constitution and the law at will in the name of social harmony and stability and get on a path on which they regard people, humanity, and human rights as their enemies."

Illegal detentions

Under the section on civil and political rights, the human rights document singled out China's system of prisons and detention centers as being in need of greater public supervision, reiterating Beijing's declared stance on the extraction of confessions by torture, which is still commonly reported by former detainees.

"Effective measures shall be taken to prohibit such acts as corporal punishment, abuse, insult of detainees, or the extraction of confessions by torture," the human rights plan, which the official news agency Xinhua published in full, said.

The plan also restated laws against illegal detention and treatment of suspects in custody.

"Taking a criminal suspect in custody, changing the place of custody, or extending the term of detention must be carried out in accordance with the law," the plan said.

Xinhua, in its accompanying report on the human rights plan, linked the pledged improvements in the detention system to the death of a Chinese man at a police station in Yunnan province two months ago.

His death, it said, "aroused public outcry for enhancing transparency and supervision of the country's detention system."

China's petitioners frequently report being detained in large “reception centers” for those who travel to Beijing and other major cities to make complaints about their local governments.

These centers are said to constitute an efficient system of "black jails," from which petitioners are then escorted by officials back to their hometown.

While the document pledges to "guarantee citizens' rights to criticize, give advice to, complain of, and accuse state organs and civil servants," it said the petitioning complaints system of "letters and visits" would "remain unblocked.”

Many petitioners report years of stonewalling and unofficial detentions at government complaints offices, as well as harassments and beatings of those seeking to take their complaints higher up.

The plan called for the physical separation of detainees and interrogators in interrogation rooms, and it pledged to promote the practice of physical examinations for detainees both before and after interrogation.

Focus on prison abuse

Unexplained deaths in police custody are a key cause for complaints against the government, with petitioners reporting refusal to hand over a body or to conduct post-mortem examinations, falsification of medical records, and the outright "disappearance" of dead bodies in cases in which relatives' suspicions are aroused.

Detainees' families—particularly those whose cases are related to state security and political dissent—have also complained of not being allowed to visit prisoners, of precipitate moves to faraway prisons, and of not being informed for months where their loved ones are being held.

Political detainees and petitioners can sometimes "disappear" for months on end, under a form of "residential surveillance" at an undisclosed location.

"The rules regarding detainees' correspondence, meeting with people, entertainment, and family visits shall be improved," the plan said.

"The state is improving the sanitation management system for detainees as well as their medical treatment, and promoting standardized management of detainees' life and health care."

It said prisoners wishing to make a complaint could arrange a direct meeting with leaders of prisons or detention houses, suggesting the hiring of public supervisors to oversee conditions.

A detainee could also meet the procurator stationed in a prison or detention house by appointment, "if the former feels he has been abused and wants to make a complaint."

Monitoring the judicial system

The plan also called for the use of audio-visual recordings in courtrooms across the country.

"People's courts with necessary conditions shall record or video their court sessions and major relevant trial activities, and establish audio-visual archives of trial work," it said, adding that parties to the case would be given unfettered access to such records.

The plan gave strong support to China's Lawyers Law, which guarantees lawyers' rights to meet, correspond with, and review files of persons in custody, and to conduct investigations and collect evidence.

"The state also guarantees the personal rights of lawyers and their right to debate or defend when they carry out their duties," it added.

Several prominent civil rights lawyers have been jailed, beaten, or otherwise harassed for trying to take on powerful local vested interests.

Overseas rights groups have launched a campaign for the release of Beijing-based rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who lost his law license after he criticized the government for its treatment of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement and organized a hunger strike to protest the ill-treatment of lawyers and rights activists by local officials.

Gao has been missing since Feb. 4 and is believed to have been kidnapped by authorities. His family is seeking political asylum in the United States.

And in mid-2005, civil rights lawyer Guo Feixiong was beaten by police in China's southern Guangdong province after representing villagers seeking to remove their party head, whom they accused of corruption in a lucrative property transaction.

Guo is currently serving a five-year jail term for "illegal business activities."

Original reporting by RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese services. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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