Victims of China's "re-education through labor" camp-based punishment system are being harassed and mistreated by police as they try to seek compensation, even after the system was officially abolished at the end of last year, rights activists said on Thursday.
On Feb. 19, police in Liaoning province beat three women among a group of 11 former detainees from the notorious Masanjia Women's Re-education Through Labor Camp after they campaigned for compensation for abuses suffered in the camp.
Liu Hua, Hao Wei, and Jia Fengzhen were dragged into a room and beaten by officers at the municipal police department in the northeastern city of Shenyang after they tried to take photos of themselves registering the complaint.
"Former detainees have been blocked from seeking justice over their detentions and abuses suffered in labor camps," the overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) group said in an e-mailed statement on Thursday.
"Some have been taken into custody and tortured by police," the group said, citing the beating of Liu, Hao, and Jia.
China's parliament voted on Dec. 28, 2013, to end its controversial "re-education through labor," or laojia, system of administrative punishments following a prolonged campaign by lawyers, former inmates, and rights activists to abolish it.
Former inmates have detailed a regime of daily torture and abuse, failure of medical care, and grueling overtime at Masanjia, a police-run facility where women regarded as troublemakers by the authorities were sent without trial.
Liu confirmed the attack against her in an interview with RFA's Mandarin Service.
"Twelve of us went to the police department, but they would only allow three of us to go into the main hall to deliver our petition," she said. "So the three of us went in as representatives."
"After we had filled in the forms, Hao Wei wanted to take photos with her cell phone...and the policeman tried to snatch away Hao Wei's phone, so she shoved it into my pocket," she said.
"He grabbed hold of my jacket and started hitting me and shoving me, and he beat and shoved me a few times until I was inside the room," Liu said.
She said the attacks took place shortly after the policeman discovered the women had been inmates at the former Masanjia Re-education Through Labor camp in the northeastern province of Liaoning.
Last December, former Masanjia inmate Shi Yunxiang was held by Beijing police and sentenced to 10 days' administrative detention after she went to publicize her campaign in the capital and posted an open letter online.
Petitioners have reported a nationwide crackdown on anyone making complaints against the government or law enforcement agencies ahead of annual parliamentary sessions in Beijing next week.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party has banned any petitioning of higher levels of government ahead of the National People's Congress (NPC) sessions, although thousands of petitioners continue to converge on the capital in a bid to air their grievances.
Shanghai petitioner Gu Guoping said the abolition of the re-education through labor system last month hasn't meant an end to administrative and extrajudicial detentions, however.
"The authorities are using administrative detention as a measure to to deal with rights activists and petitioners," Gu said. "It's the same across the whole country."
Gu said that a fellow Shanghai petitioner Li Yufang had been handed an administrative detention sentence simply for making a complaint.
"Our officials, who are supposed to be our mother and father, don't stick to the law," he said. "Nobody who complains or files a lawsuit has a hope of winning."
Petitioners target Beijing
Sichuan-based rights activist Huang Qi, who founded the Tianwang rights website, said the authorities are keen to hold back a wave of petitioners likely to travel to Beijing ahead of the NPC sessions next week.
"But these measures will do little to obstruct the nationwide movement of people who simply want to stand up for their own rights," Huang said.
He added: "I think if this route is closed off to them, they will begin to employ more and more extreme measures until we get to the point where ... everyone in China is a victim."
Many petitioners converge on major centers of government during high-level political meetings and significant dates in the calendar, in the hope of focusing public attention on their plight.
But police step up patrols and identity checks on streets and at intersections at such times, raiding areas where petitioners usually stay and sending them to out-of-town detention centers.
Officially known as "reception centers," the detention centers follow no procedure under China's current judicial system, and are used by the authorities to incarcerate those who complain before sending them home under escort.
Grievances are ignored
Nearly 20,000 grievances are filed daily to complaints offices across China in person, according to official figures released last November.
China has pledged to revamp its system for lodging complaints against the government as part of a package of reforms announced recently, but rights activists say the changes aren't likely to lead to more justice for petitioners.
Many petitioners are middle-aged or elderly people with little or no income living in constant fear of being detained by officials from their hometown who run representative offices in larger cities seeking out those who complain about them.
Those who do pursue complaints against the government—often for forced evictions, loss of farmland, accidents, or death and mistreatment in custody—say they are repeatedly stonewalled, detained in "black jails," beaten, and harassed by the authorities.
Reported by Jiang Pei and Tang Qiwei for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.