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Is China cleaning up its illegal 'black jails'?

Ten men have been sentenced to prison for illegally detaining people who traveled to Beijing to appeal to the government, in a possible sign the government is trying to rein in abuses.

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Clothes hang from a green entrance door of a single-story brick house, known as a 'black jail' in Beijing Tuesday. A Beijing court sentenced 10 people to prison Tuesday for illegally detaining citizens trying to take their local grievances to the central government, state media reported, in a possible sign the government is trying to rein in abuses.

Andy Wong/AP

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In an almost unprecedented sign of official disapproval, a Beijing court today sentenced 10 men to prison for staffing an illegal “black jail.”

The men, allegedly hired by local government officials from the central province of Henan, had seized and detained a number of citizens who had come to Beijing seeking redress for their grievances.

Lawyers welcomed the sentences, ranging from six months to two years, according to the official Xinhua news agency, as a possible step toward an end to extralegal detention, a common practice in China.

“This is a good start in the legal fight against black jails,” says Tang Hongxin, a lawyer who has assisted victims of illegal imprisonment. “I hope the government will step up this fight” after ignoring the problem for years, he says.

One woman who had been detained by the men who were jailed today was less impressed. “The men behind the case were not even charged,” Sang Shuling complained in a telephone interview. “The representatives in Beijing of the Changge city government were the ones responsible, but the court said the case had nothing to do with our local government.”

(Read the Monitor's Peter Ford exclusive: How a Chinese prisoner release reveals business as usual at 'black jail' )

The unusual case – one of the first of its kind in Beijing according to legal experts – drew back the curtain on the sordid and often brutal manner in which Chinese local officials seek to protect their reputations and their career prospects.

In order to cover up the problems that petitioners are trying to bring to the central government’s attention, local officials hire “retrievers” to kidnap the petitioners before they can lodge their complaints. They are then held in secret jails, mistreated, and often beaten before being sent home, according to victim testimony.

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Ms. Sang said she had come to Beijing from Chang Ge, 478 miles away, last April to complain that her soldier son had not been awarded a proper pension after being discharged, disabled, following an accident.

She said she was seized on April 28 by men working for Changge’s representative office in Beijing, forced onto a bus, and taken to an isolated house surrounded by wasteland in the outskirts of Beijing, which was guarded by dogs and the 10 “thugs” sentenced today.

She was held captive in this black jail for five days, until local police raided it and released her and three other prisoners, she recalled. “If they had not come I don’t know how long I would have been kept prisoner or what terrible things would have happened to me,” she says.

Sang and her fellow prisoners were fortunate; the Beijing police have traditionally turned a blind eye to the network of black jails around the city. But the case that ended today “is part of an effort to put some life into improvements to the criminal law system,” suggests Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who wrote a report on black jails.

“It is seen by the [ruling Communist] Party as something that needs to be done so as to modernize China’s legal system,” he adds. But he doubts that such improvements will be allowed to undermine the government’s overriding policy of “stability maintenance” to guard against social unrest.

(Read the Monitor's Peter Ford exclusive: How a Chinese prisoner release reveals business as usual at 'black jail' )

 “So long as stability maintenance remains unchanged, illegal detentions cannot be eradicated, only reduced to a certain degree,” agrees prominent human rights lawyer Li Fangping. “Petitioners are still being illegally detained … and no official has ever been punished for it.”

Still, today’s ruling “means there will be fewer illegal detentions of petitioners in the future,” says lawyer Lu Fangzheng. “Local governments will have to consider the risks of doing this.”

The authorities certainly seem keen to publicize the sentences. Media reports of an earlier hearing in the case in December were quickly censored; on Tuesday the news was prominently displayed on Internet news portals and Xinhua put its story on the case at the top of its social media news feed.

“There has been a lot of public pressure on this issue,” says lawyer Mr. Li. “The Beijing government had to show that it was not protecting these black jails. But it doesn’t look like more than a gesture to me at the moment.”

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