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New China detention law has critics worried about torture

March 15, 2012 | 11:06 am

National People's Congress

REPORTING FROM BEIJING -- Human rights activists are concerned that a newly ratified Chinese criminal procedure law will officially sanction the torture and mistreatment of government critics.

But some legal experts say the law, allowing police to hold suspects in an undisclosed location for up to six months without formal charges, is actually an improvement on the current practice of secret detentions if it is exercised fairly.

 “I think that the law itself is a step forward, but it's very hard to change what the police do in reality,” said Liu Xiaoyuan, a lawyer in Beijing who once represented dissident artist Ai Weiwei.

The regulations ratified on Wednesday, expected to take effect next year, allow detentions in cases of alleged “engaging in terrorism” or “endangering national security.” Security officers will be required to notify a suspect’s family within 24 hours of his or her detention, but can conceal the detainee’s location and deny access to legal counsel.

The new law, replacing provisions ratified in 1996, could improve the rights of mentally ill suspects and juveniles, and could also protect suspects against forced confessions.

The legislation was approved by 2,639 of 3,000 delegates on the last day of the National People’s Congress, a two-week legislative meeting in Beijing. The law will “better embody the constitutional principle of respecting and protecting human rights,” delegate Wang Liming told the New China News Agency, China’s official news wire.

But lawyer Liu warned that the changes are significant only if they are followed adequately. “Once they feel a threat to stability,” he warned of security forces, “they will abandon any legal procedure.”

Liu was detained last April after calls for an Arab Spring-style revolution in China triggered a widespread crackdown on dissent. His client Ai Weiwei was detained for 2 1/2 months at about the same time without charges being filed.

China’s courts are strictly controlled by the ruling Communist Party, which, according to human rights groups, has often used allegations of  “endangering national security” to silence its critics. Outspoken bloggers, activists and petitioners have been regularly placed in “black jails,” unofficial holding pens in hotels and apartment blocks under the watch of plainclothes security agents.

“Already, many thousands of people in China are being held in secret and are at great risk of being tortured,” Catherine Baber, deputy director of Asia Pacific for Amnesty International, said recently.

Users of Sina Weibo, a popular microblog similar to Twitter, have compared the impact of the new legislation to the ways of the Gestapo, the Soviet secret police, and even the villain from the horror movie “Saw.” One cartoon shows a giant hand squashing a tiny person with one finger.

Some Weibo users ruminated on the possible effects of the provisions. “After you send a Weibo, one day after work you don’t return home, you’ve disappeared,” wrote one user. “Then one day, your family members are suddenly given a bag of ashes, and told that you were detained for ‘endangering national security’ and unexpectedly died of a heart problem.”

Lan Rongjie, an assistant professor of law at Zhejiang University, said that the significant public response to the draft shows that the Chinese public is growing more aware of legal rights, even if the outcry had no direct impact on the Legislature.

“Ten years ago there was no Weibo at all, and it was rare that any legislation would be discussed by common people,” he said. “Now it seems that every single individual is involved in this process.”


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-- Jonathan Kaiman   

Photo: Delegates attend the closing ceremony of the National People's Congress  at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Wednesday. Credit: Mark Ralston / AFP/Getty Images