Black jails (Chinese: 黑監獄; pinyin: hēijiānyù) are a network of extralegal detention centers established by Chinese security forces and private security companies across the People's Republic of China in recent years. They are used mainly to detain, without trial, petitioners (上访者, shangfangzhe), who travel to seek redress for grievances unresolved at the local level. The right to petition was available in ancient China, and was later revived by the communists, with important differences.
Black jails have no official or legal status, differentiating them from detention centers, the criminal arrest process, or formal sentencing to jail or prison. They are in wide use in Beijing, in particular, and serve as holding locations for the many petitioners who travel to the central Office of Letters and Calls to petition.
The jails were introduced to replace the Custody and Repatriation system after it was abolished in 2003 following the notorious Sun Zhigang incident. The existence of such jails is acknowledged by at least part of the CCP officialdom, following a police raid of one of them and criminal trial of the company running it.
According to human rights groups, black jails are a growing industry. The system includes so-called "interceptors", or "black guards", often sent by local or regional authorities, who abduct petitioners and hold them against their will or bundle them onto a bus to send them back to where they came from. Non-government sources have estimated the number of black jails in operation to be between 7 and 50. The facilities may be located in state-owned hotels, hostels, hospitals, psychiatric facilities, residential buildings, or government ministry buildings, among others.
The appearance of black jails was the authorities' response to the use of the "letters and calls" system (also known as "petitioning"), which attempts to resolve disputes at the local level.
As a modern version of the imperial tradition, reinstated by the communists after 1949, the petitioning system permits citizens to report local abuse of power to higher levels of government. Because local courts are beholden to local officials, however, and since pursuing redress through the legal system is too expensive for rural Chinese, petitioning in modern China has become the only channel for seeking redress.
Petitioners may begin their attempts for redress at the at local-level letters and calls office, which are located in courthouses or in township-level government offices. If unsatisfied, they can move up the hierarchy to provincial level offices and, at the highest level, the State Bureau for Letters and Visits in Beijing.
The number of people using the petitioning system has increased since 1993, to the extent that the system has been strained for years. Official statistics indicate that petition offices annually handled around 10 million inquiries and complaints from petitioners from 2003 to 2007. However, despite its enduring nature and political support, the system has never been an effective mechanism for dealing with the complaints brought to it – largely because it is chronically overwhelmed by the number of people seeking redress.
Allegedly, local officials, with the tolerance of public security authorities, establish the black jails as a way to ensure that complainants are detained, punished, and sent home so that these officials will not suffer demerits under rules that impose bureaucratic penalties when there is a large flow of petitioners from their areas. Black jails are used to protect government officials at the county, municipal, and provincial levels from financial and career advancement penalties. Unpublished local government documents describe penalties levied against local officials who fail to take decisive action when petitioners from their geographical area seek legal redress in provincial capitals and Beijing. The operators of black jails allegedly receive from those local-level governments daily cash payments of 150 yuan (US$22) to 200 yuan (US$29) per person.
Treatment of detainees
Human Rights Watch published the report An Alleyway in Hell dedicated to exploring the issue. It documents how government officials, security forces, and their agents routinely abduct people, usually petitioners, off the streets of Beijing and other Chinese cities, "strip them of their possessions, and imprison them."
According to reporters visiting the jails, those detained inside them are beaten, starved, and sometimes hosed down with water. 20 or 30 people may be forced to inhabit a single room, including those suffering from disabilities. Many are deprived of food, sleep, and medical care, and are subject to theft and extortion by their guards. They have no access to family members or to legal counsel or courts. Thousands of people are abducted off the streets of Chinese cities and held incommunicado for weeks or months in these conditions. The makeshift jails are found in state-owned hostels, hotels, nursing homes, and mental hospitals, among other locations.
Numerous accounts of conditions inside the institutions have made their way into Western media and human rights groups reports. For example, one 46-year-old former detainee from Jiangsu province, who spent more than a month in a black jail, "cried with fear and frustration as she recalled her abduction. [The abductors] are inhuman...two people dragged me by the hair and put me into the car. My two hands were tied up and I couldn't move. Then [after arriving back in Jiangsu] they put me inside a room where there were two women who stripped me of my clothes...[and] beat my head [and] used their feet to stomp my body," the former detainee said.
The authorities have repeatedly denied the existence of black jails. In an April 2009 Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) press conference, an official responded to an Al Jazeera correspondent's query about black jails by stating categorically that, "Things like this do not exist in China." In June 2009, the Chinese government asserted in the Outcome Report of the United Nations Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review of China's human rights record that, "There are no black jails in the country."
However, in September 2010, it was reported that Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau officials have detained Zhang Jun, chairman of "Anyuanding Security Service Company", and Zhang Jie, general manager of this company, for "illegally detaining people and illegal business operation". The company started business in 2004. In 2008, it began to help Beijing liaison offices of local governments to stop petitioners from their regions from petitioning in Beijing. The company employees first lied to the petitioners, telling them that their lodging has been provided. Then, the company employees took them to abandoned hotels or rented houses in suburban Beijing, seized their IDs and phones, and locked them up until the liaison offices told the company to help send the petitioners back to their hometowns. Later, the company expanded its business and got more clients including even remote village governments to help the local governments "maintain stability".
On 15 May 2010, a guard of a black jail located in a Beijing hotel received his final judgment of 8 years of imprisonment for raping a female petitioner who had been illegally held in custody.
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