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Beijing Warned about Sending Criminal Suspects to Secret Locations

  • Peter Simpson

China is being urged to scrap planned changes to its criminal law that would legalize the detention of suspects in secret locations. Lawyers inside and outside of the country say the proposals would lead to more forced disappearances of political activists and further erode rights in China.

The reaction follows an account published Wednesday by Chinese rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong, who claims he was beaten and tortured during forced and secret interrogations.

The National Peoples' Congress is reviewing amendments which would change its criminal law to allow security forces to hold suspects in secret locations without charges for up to six months. The lawmakers are expected to formally endorse the new law by the end of September.

Patrick Poon of the Hong Kong Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group says the planned changes prove human rights in China are deteriorating, despite government claims to the contrary.

"These new amendments can actually detain any person in an unspecified place any time if the police wish," said Poon. "That would increase the occurrences of enforced disappearances in China, so we are very concerned about all these new provisions."

Forced disappearances are commonly used to silence dissidents in China, and have increased dramatically since February, when online campaigns began calling for Arab-styled uprisings against the Communist government.

Many rights activists and lawyers have disappeared without charges for months at a time, even though the practice is outlawed under the Chinese Constitution.

Under the new law, those disappearances would become legal, and authorities would not have to notify the detainees' family members or lawyers.

Poon says the amendments are a way for Beijing to defend itself against international criticism, including from the United Nations, about its human rights record.

"I think that's why they are trying to legalize these kinds of residential surveillance or detentions, so that they can make the law better, so that they can claim that they are following their own laws to detain these persons with so called legitimate reasons, for example endanger national security,” said Poon.

Poon says China is concerned about criticism of its legal system. But Donald Rothwell, professor of international law at Australian National University, says the measure will do little to ease international concerns over the legal risks to foreign citizens working in the country.

“This will just harden the human rights critique that a number of other Western states have been making against China," said Rothwell.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu declined to elaborate on the proposed legislation Wednesday, telling reporters the proposed laws were a matter for the National Peoples' Congress, which is China's parliament.

Jiang warned Chinese lawyers to practice within the law or face punishment.

No one from the NPC was unavailable for comment, but the body has asked for the public's views on the amendments.

Chinese rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang dismissed the requests for comments as a public relations stunt.

Pu says the changes are being made solely to legalize the current detentions. He says the views of the public and moderate power brokers on the NPC will be ignored, because China’s all-powerful Public Security Bureau has the final say.

Pu says security officials want to crack down on dissent to stamp out criticism of the government and the threat of social unrest.

On Wednesday, Chinese rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong told a Hong Kong newspaper he was subjected to a combination of physical and mental abuse, relentless brainwashing and threats during his recent two months in detention.

His detailed account is one of the first to be made public because most activists, including artist Ai Wei Wei and Gao Zhisheng, have been warned by the authorities to remain silent after their release or face being detained again.