China has proposed changes in its criminal law that would effectively legalize secret detentions used to silence dissidents, in a move that has sparked alarm among rights activists.
Beijing has been secretly holding dissidents in a bid to silence them, with prominent outspoken Chinese artist Ai Weiwei among the latest who have disappeared for months without formal charges being filed.
Under the proposed changes, police will be allowed to hold suspects under "residential surveillance" in an undisclosed location for up to six months in cases involving terrorism, crimes endangering national security, or major corruption, according to a report.
Suspects could be held without their families or lawyers being notified.
Part of a broader revision of the country's criminal procedure code currently being considered by the National People's Congress, the changes were disclosed in the state-run Legal Daily
While other proposed changes have been lauded as positive legal reforms, the rules on residential surveillance sparked criticism in China's blogosphere and among rights groups who fear they would be essentially endorsing an illegal practice already in use by police.
A netizen nicknamed Pearl told RFA, "Under the law there is just no clear way to make it [secret detention] legal. It has always been done illegally and now what they are doing is legalizing that."
Following online calls in February for a "Jasmine" revolution in China inspired by uprisings in the Middle East, Beijing cracked down on dozens of dissidents, rights activists, and lawyers.
Some were "disappeared" for a time, while others were held in secret locations chosen by police for weeks or months before being released without charges.
Among them was artist Ai, who was held for 80 days, much of the time without his family knowing of his whereabouts. He was eventually charged with tax evasion.
Following his release, he said had been kept in a tiny room throughout his detention and watched 24 hours a day by shifts of two uniformed military police sergeants who never left his side.
"It is designed as a kind of mental torture, and it works well," he told the New York Times
earlier this month. Forced disappearances
Current Chinese laws allow those suspected of a crime to be held under house arrest, but the proposed amendment would allow suspects held under "residential surveillance" to be moved to secret locations other than a "regular detention center or police station."
The changes stipulate that police would not be required to notify families of a suspect's detention or the place he or she is being held to facilitate investigation.
Liu Xiaoyuan, a legal activist and Ai's lawyer, wrote on a microblog Saturday that if residential surveillance is to be added to the draft criminal procedure law, family members of detained suspects should be notified.
"Otherwise, a provision like this is just legalizing 'forced disappearances.'"
He told RFA in an interview, "No matter what crime a citizen has committed, if coercive measures are employed against him—such as if he is taken into custody by public security organs, arrested, or is cut off from contact with the outside world—his family members should be notified."
He argued that any law lacking requirements for families to be notified could be subject to abuse.
"In many situations, it is said that notifying the family would impede the investigation process for the agencies handling the case ... but unless the family members are accomplices, how would they impede the handling of the case?"
"If a person is gone, and family members are looking for him everywhere, it is even worse for the handling of the case," Liu said.
"The current internationally accepted practice is that if coercive measures are taken against someone, the family members must be notified in a timely manner," he said. Criminal code
The proposed revisions to the criminal procedure law will be reviewed by the annual session of the National People's Congress, China's parliament, in March.
As Beijing undertakes the first overhaul of its criminal code since the mid-1990s, other proposed revisions have won praise from rights activists for improving protections for individuals—including bans against the use of confessions obtained by torture, no longer compelling defendants' family members to testify against them, and granting mental health patients who are forcibly detained the right to judicial review. Reported by Xin Yu for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.