Authorities in Beijing have placed under criminal detention a veteran activist after he led journalists to one of the government's unofficial detention centers, known as "black jails," rights campaigners said.
Zhao Zhenjia was detained by police at a Beijing restaurant on Jan. 22, according to the China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) website, as he was helping to organize a Lunar New Year gathering for petitioners, ordinary Chinese who pursue complaints against the government.
"After Zhao Zhenjia was detained, we were all very upset, because he worked on behalf of all of us," said fellow petitioner Feng Xixia. "If he is in trouble, then we should reach out and try to help him."
"Prison life is terrible, inhumane, so we put together some money for him to make it a bit less hard, so he will be able to buy some proper food," she said.
The group of friends and fellow petitioners left the money for Zhao when they tried to visit him at the You'anmen police station in Beijing's southern Fengtai district, but were turned away, CHRD said.
Censors later closed down the blog of Beijing-based activist Ge Zhihui, one of the group who tried to visit Zhao, it said.
"He was taken away by local police and the state security police," said Qian Jin, a political activist from Sichuan currently in the Chinese capital.
"After they took him away, they asked us how we knew him, and what sort of dealings we had had with him."
Zhao has been petitioning for more than three decades over a suspended death sentence handed down by the Shenyang Intermediate People's Court in 1974 for "counterrevolution," a crime that is no longer on the statute books.
While his verdict was overturned by the same court in 1985, under a reconciliation movement instigated by late former premier Hu Yaobang, Zhao was never given compensation, and has served a further three years in labor camp for his petitioning activities.
Prior to Chinese New Year, Zhao reportedly led some journalists to a black jail, which led to the release of the petitioners detained there, CHRD said.
It said the exact nature of the charges against Zhao was still unclear, but that he had been formally detained under China's Criminal Law.
Authorities in the Chinese capital detained a number of petitioners from Shaanxi and Shanghai over the Lunar New Year holiday 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.
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.
Reported by Fang Yuan for RFA's Mandarin service, and by Grace Kei Lai-see for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.