A resident of the southern Chinese province of Guangdong who was forcibly committed to a mental hospital following a public confrontation is suing the hospital for infringement of his rights.
In the first case to come to public attention since China's new Mental Health Law came into effect on May 1, Li Shijie's appeal against his committal was heard by a court in Guangdong's Shaoguan city on Tuesday.
"Today we got through three stages: the presentation of evidence; hearing arguments, and mediation," said Li, who is suing the Shaoguan Military Veterans' Hospital over alleged violation of his rights during the admission process after he had been sent there by local police.
"The whole thing took about two hours, and the court seemed to take a fairly neutral stance," he said. "They seemed to want to understand the evidence and the main thrust of the arguments."
The hearing ended with no judgement, which the court should issue within three months, he said.
Li's lawyer, who gave only his surname Gao, said that while the Shaoguan hospital has strongly denied wrongdoing, he thinks Li has a good chance of success.
"From my point of view, which is fairly objective ... there were a lot of flaws and problems in the hospital's procedures, whether in the process of committing patients or in their treatment after committal," he said.
"I think our case stood up very well ... and now that the Mental Health Law has come into effect, this is a huge step forward not just for patients, but for hospitals as well," Gao said.
He said that while Li's incarceration had happened before the law took effect, the law might still influence the outcome of the case, as the court was likely to refer to it for guidance.
Declared mentally ill
Back in 2011, Li told RFA he was taken to the police station following an argument with a restaurant owner who he said had turned aggressive after refusing to turn on the air-conditioning, he told RFA.
"I was arguing with them for four or five hours inside the police station, and they couldn't find anything to pin on me," he said.
"Then, because they didn't want to mediate [the dispute] and weren't willing to apologize [for detaining me], it occurred to them to 'mentally ill' me as a means of dealing with me," he said, using a term that has gained common parlance in Chinese media to refer to the practice of silencing people found to be troublemakers by forcibly committing them to psychiatric care.
Li said he was locked up in the Shaoguan hospital for a total of 96 days, and accused the hospital of unprofessional conduct during the committal process.
He said that he had clearly presented no danger to himself or anyone else at that time.
Calls to the Shaoguan Military Veterans' Hospital went unanswered during office hours on Tuesday.
The new Mental Health Law aims to protect citizens from forcible admission to psychiatric institutions, except in extreme cases where the person is at risk of harming themselves or others.
According to Shenzhen-based rights lawyer Huang Xuetao, the author of a groundbreaking 2010 report on psychiatric incarcerations, the law does confer greater rights on mental health service users than before.
"There is huge change happening in the area of forcible psychiatric admissions, and we believe that this began on May 1," Huang said on Tuesday.
"We will therefore be paying close attention to this lawsuit, its process, and the end result," she said.
However, rights activists fear the new law is unlikely to offer much protection to people facing incarceration in psychiatric units for political reasons, because local officials and police departments remain very powerful in their local communities.
Rights groups have long campaigned against authorities' aggressive use of mental health diagnoses to incarcerate people who are regarded as troublemakers because they complain about the government.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.