Petitioners Stage Hunger Strike

Beijing authorities round up hundreds of petitioners in "black jails" ahead of Labor Day.

Chinese women petitioners kneeling as they cry outside a court in southwest China's Chongqing municipality, May 13, 2010.

Hundreds of petitioners from Shanghai who traveled to the Chinese capital to complain about forced evictions and official wrongdoing have gone on hunger strike, petitioners said this week, after authorities detained them in unofficial "black jails" ahead of the Labor Day holiday.

The crackdown came on April 27, when authorities seized more than 700 residents from Shanghai who were petitioning in Beijing, forcing them into police vehicles and detaining them in two separate black jails, the Hong Kong-based NGO China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) said in a statement.

"More than 400 petitioners were taken to the black jail at Jiujingzhuang while several hundred more were held at the relief station at the Beijing South Railway Station," the group said.

Shanghai petitioner Wang Chengqi confirmed the report, saying the petitioners had been roughly treated by police.

"There were a lot of people, and the police started to move in," said Wang, adding that around 70 police had arrived in around 20 vehicles after a crowd of petitioners began to form outside the State Bureau of Letters and Visits, the complaints department for the national government.

"I was held by a group of police and then beaten up by a person who had no uniform and no badge," Wang said. "He beat me with his fists and he kicked me."

The Shanghai residents were petitioning over grievances related to forced demolitions, illegal land requisition, problems with health care, and injustice in the court system, CHRD said.

Hunger strike

A second petitioner from Shanghai, Mao Hengjun, said that around 700 petitioners were taken to the unofficial detention center for petitioners at Jiujingzhuang, on the outskirts of Beijing, where they had immediately begun a hunger strike in protest at their detention.

Some had called the emergency number and complained to the police that they were being illegally detained, but these calls were ignored, she said.

She said she was locked in a room alone and that her cell phone had been confiscated.

"There were around 400 to 500 people in the holding center on hunger strike," Mao said. "Locking us up in there was wrong. We were shouting 'We want freedom!'"

She said petitioners were protesting at their arbitrary detention.

"They locked us up in a black jail with no legal formalities whatsoever," she said. "A lot of people were calling [the emergency number]."

An official who answered the phone at the Shanghai government representative office in Beijing, which oversees the return of petitioners from its jurisdiction, said he hadn't heard of such an incident taking place.

Sichuan-based rights activist Huang Qi said an estimated 3,000 petitioners had been incarcerated at Jiujingzhuang alone.

He said a surge of petitioners had descended on the capital following recent pledges from the ruling Communist Party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection that it would intensify its crackdown on corruption.

Large numbers of petitioners had signed an open letter in support of the announcement, Huang said, adding that the authorities are currently nervous of any large gatherings of people ahead of a key leadership transition later this year.

"The authorities are afraid of any large gatherings of ordinary people," he said.

Meanwhile, Shandong petitioner Lin Xiuli said that some of her fellow activists had been detained in a local police station in their home city of Gaomi after traveling to Beijing and were released on Monday after staging a hunger strike in protest against their detention.

Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.