Beijing government denies the existence of black houses and journalists who try to gain access those allegedly detained face threats and detention.
'I feel like I have been left here to die'
BEIJING // Jin Hanyan peered through the steel bars of the window, her eyes weary as she recited her story - a catalogue of brutality and injustices at the hands of Chinese authorities. She spoke as if she were arguing her case in front of a judge. Her crime: seeking justice. Her punishment: detention without trial. "This is an illegal arrest, it's a black house. They just want to make you die," Ms Jin said from inside her room, speaking through the window while keeping watch on who might be patrolling on the pavement outside.
"I feel like I have been left here to die." She was being held in what human right groups call black houses, detention centres run like secret prisons illegally detaining without charge petitioners who travel to Beijing to bring their grievances against authorities. The central government denies they exist and journalists who try to gain access to those allegedly detained often face threats and detention.
"The authorities in Beijing allow them to exist," said Roseanna Rife, Amnesty International's deputy director of the Asia Pacific programme. "They use them as a holding place for people before they take them back home." In the backstreets of west Beijing, tacked on to the side of a hotel, stands what rights groups allege is the secret prison used for detainees from Shiyan city in Hubei province.
Amnesty said such black houses are in operation nationwide. Many are run by district liaison offices that have offices in Beijing. A receptionist at the front desk of the hotel confirmed that Shiyan city has a liaison office inside. Ms Jin, 34, said it was her hometown's office that ordered her detention. Police cars patrol the area, children play obliviously in the streets, and a handful of guests check in and out of the hotel, which has banned foreigners from staying.
Ms Jin said she had travelled to Beijing with her sister to lodge a complaint about the local government, which was supposed to give them jobs when they finished their education, but did not. She had been sleeping at the central Beijing train station with other petitioners when police took her into custody. She was beaten and sent to the black house, she said, holding up her torn clothes to show where she had been manhandled.
Ms Jin's story is all too familiar. Amid a slowing economy and the sensitive 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, China's leaders have made public their fear of social unrest. And their concerns are at least partly justified. "There is always a link between crackdowns like this and anniversaries," a spokesman for a Chinese human rights group in Beijing said. Thousands of petitioners like Ms Jin travel to Beijing to practise an ancient right granted to all citizens to seek justice from the central authorities. But local governments often try to stop petitioners handing in their complaint, and many face threats, forced repatriations and beatings.
Some have encountered worse. Du Mingrong, a 58-year-old petitioner from Changbai, Jilin province, who was released in March from a two-year sentence at a re- education camp, said she was imprisoned without charge and never told her crime. She too had travelled to Beijing to make a claim against local police who she said had stolen money from her. She sought compensation from the central government.
Since she started petitioning five years ago, she has faced multiple detentions without charge, broken ribs and torture, she said. Her life has been dramatically transformed. She has been estranged from her family who do not support her decision to petition. She lives on the outskirts of the city with other petitioners. Ms Du said she lives in fear of further detentions in Beijing. But she has no regrets over her decision to bring to light her injustices.
According to human rights groups in Beijing, only 13 per cent of petitioners' complaints are political in nature. Most come to complain about police injustices in their hometowns and courts and prosecution issues. "There is still a lot of faith in the central government," said Ms Rife, from Amnesty International. "People believe they will address the issues." But after a certain period of time, she said, "their confidence starts to drop".
"The idea of thousands of petitioners on the streets of Beijing does not sit with well with the government, who wants to try and show harmony and ultimately keep power." Dean Peng, a Chinese activist and journalist, has had experience with black houses and detention. In 2007, he was charged with disturbing public order when he worked with a documentary team exposing black houses. They found up to 30 petitioners being held in a single room and were themselves detained by police for six hours.
"By its very nature, dictatorship must create enemies, simply because it compels people to agree, and to be happy." He said petitioners may be apolitical at the start of a campaign, but become strongly opposed to the government as they experience official heavy-handedness. After being detained in the black house for three days, Ms Jin was escorted by officials to Beijing train station and placed on a train back to her hometown.
"Please contact my sister if you do not hear from me when I return," she said by text message. Ms Jin did not know what would happen to her when she got back home. She said hoped to be freed and spoke of seeking employment, but feared she may be sent to a re-education camp. Phone calls to her mobile went unanswered. Her phone later was disconnected. * The National