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Exclusive: How a Chinese prisoner release reveals business as usual at 'black jail'

A Monitor investigation reveals that Tuesday's announced freedom for 70,000 prisoners was really just a regular release of several hundred petitioners.

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China's newly appointed leader Xi Jinping attends a meeting with foreign experts at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Wednesday. In just a few hours after Xi Jinping had made a speech celebrating the anniversary of China’s Constitution, a Chinese human rights group posted an extraordinary report on its website: 70,000 inmates of Beijing’s 'black jails' had just been freed.

Ed Jones/Reuters

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Late on Tuesday evening, a Chinese human rights group posted an extraordinary report on its website: 70,000 inmates of Beijing’s “black jails” – illegal detention centers for troublesome protesters – had just been freed.

The news came just a few hours after Xi Jinping, the new leader of the ruling Communist Party, had made a speech celebrating the anniversary of China’s Constitution in which he urged that “we must firmly establish throughout society the authority of the Constitution and the law.”

Did the reported mass prisoner release signal a sea change in the Chinese government’s approach to the law, often decried by critics as cavalier to say the least? 

Well, no.

Tracking down an address in scruffy south Beijing that the human rights group, Tianwang, had given me, I paid a visit Wednesday evening to the black jail from which Tianwang claimed the inmates had been freed. The facility, at the end of a cul-de-sac lined by hardware stores, turned out to be a nondescript, dimly lit collection of single story buildings resembling warehouses, behind a barrier manned by a couple of thugs and a uniformed security guard.

'No Interview'

One of the guards told me it was a “repatriation center” but would say no more, pointing to a sign by the guard post reading “Private Organization, No Interview.” 

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