Fears Over Secret Detentions

Chinese police may be left free to hold suspects without informing family members.

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Ai Weiwei (R) speaks to reporters outside his studio in Beijing, June 23, 2011.

China's parliament on Thursday debated a law dealing with the secret detention of suspects, which has sparked a public outcry from rights activists and dissidents.

While a clause allowing the secret detention of any suspects appeared to have been deleted from the draft, police will still be under no obligation to inform the families of people detained on suspected terrorist or national security offenses if the bill is passed in its current form.

Among the amended law's most outspoken critics has been controversial artist Ai Weiwei, who was held at an unknown location for several months during his investigation for "economic crimes" before his release last year.

The draft amended Criminal Procedure Law now before the National People's Congress (NPC) states that police must notify a detainee's family within 24 hours that a suspect is being held.

However, the bill makes an exception in cases involving "terrorism" or "national security," which would still give the authorities plenty of scope for arbitrary detention of activists, according to Beijing-based rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan.

"Whether they are suspected of terrorism or crimes involving national security, the police should inform people's families once they have detained them," Liu said.

"Detention is a legal reality of the apparatus of a state, so why can't a detainee's relatives be told about the state's own judicial processes; in what way could they hamper an investigation?"

'Subversion,' 'terrorism'

Many political detainees and rights activists in China are eventually charged with subversion, a charge which would come under the definition of a national security crime.

Meanwhile, ethnic minorities who use peaceful means to oppose Chinese rule in Tibet and Xinjiang are often at risk of being described as terrorists, according to overseas rights groups.

He Bin, a professor at Beijing's University of Politics and Law, said via his Sina Weibo microblog account that the law also fails to address the issue of detentions in one locality by officials from another part of China.

"The detention of people by officials from other locations isn't governed by the criminal code. Neither are the places where these detentions take place governed by legislation on detention centers, so there will be no control over them," He wrote.

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 actions by local officials to higher levels of government.

Many detentions of petitioners are carried out by officials from their hometowns, who operate representative offices in Beijing.

On Wednesday, businessman Zhang Mingyu was detained in Beijing during annual parliamentary sessions by high-ranking police officers from his home city of Chongqing, in an apparent bid to prevent further corruption scandals from leaking to the public.

Sweeping powers

Beijing-based legal blogger Mo Zhixu said the revised law still hands sweeping powers of detention to police, as the definitions of what constitutes national security offenses are very hazy.

"I think that this does represent an expansion of judicial powers," Mo said. "This sort of law, which diminishes a citizen's right to protect themselves, is far behind the times."

Currently, Chinese authorities may detain suspects, formally arrest them, or place them under residential surveillance, essentially a form of house arrest, at their home or in a hotel room.

Administrative sentences of up to 15 days for minor offenses may be imposed by police without the need for a trial, while sentences of up to three years' "re-education through labor" can be handed down by local committees without recourse to a court.

However, dozens of activists and political dissidents have reported being taken "on holiday" in recent months to out-of-town locations ahead of sensitive political dates and anniversaries, or to prevent them from carrying out planned activists.

While the "holidaying" technique is nothing new in China, it has been applied in a much more systematic way following a nationwide "stability" crackdown in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East last year.

High-profile activists like Ai Weiwei and jailed rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng had also been previously taken away by police to unknown locations, with no public information about their whereabouts or well-being, and no word to their families. 

Cases of torture are more likely to be reported in the course of such "disappearances" or unofficial detentions, according to rights groups.

Formal areas of detention such as police stations or prisons are seen as being marginally safer for detainees, because they have an inherent bureaucracy, and are easier to approach.

Trade in organs

Concerns over prisoners' rights were also raised with a report this week in the Legal Daily newspaper, in which a top health official was quoted as saying that the majority of organs for transplant are taken from executed prisoners.

"China has long vowed to reduce its reliance on death-row inmates for organs, but high demand and a chronic shortage of donations mean they remain a key source," the Legal Daily quoted Vice Health Minister Huang Jiefu as saying.

Huang reportedly made the remarks on the sidelines of the country's annual parliamentary session in Beijing where about 3,000 delegates from across the country have gathered for 10 days of meetings.

China banned the trade in human organs in 2007 and two years later began rolling out a nationwide donation system, but demand for organ transplants still far exceeds supply in the country of 1.3 billion people.

About 10,000 transplants are carried out annually, but an estimated 1.3 million people are waiting for transplants, according to official media.

International human rights groups have long accused China of harvesting organs from executed prisoners for transplant without the consent of the prisoner or their familycharges the government has denied.

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


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