21 March 2012

New law allows secret detentions; take action for jailed Tibetan filmmaker

REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom
REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom
China has approved changes to its criminal code that give the police powers to hold journalists and others who discuss sensitive national issues in secret locations for up to six months without charge, report the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Freedom House, Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

The National People's Congress adopted an amendment to the Criminal Procedure Law on 14 March that allows suspects deemed a threat to national security to be held in undisclosed locations.

"This is the formalisation of detaining people wherever they please," Nicholas Bequelin, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, told reporters. He noted that "endangering national security" has been interpreted in a very broad manner to include acts like criticising the Chinese government.

Under the new law, police are required to inform the families of suspects that they are in detention, but do not have to say where or why the suspects are being held.

The revised law, which the Chinese state news agency Xinhua said "highlighted human rights protection," provides some new rights to defendants, including access to a lawyer and the elimination of evidence gathered through torture.

But rights advocates said the amendments would legalise the practice of secret detention, especially for people considered a threat to the ruling Communist Party. According to CPJ, disappearances were particularly frequent in 2011 after online calls for political reform.

The Chinese police have long been criticised by rights advocates for detaining people secretly, and illegally, in so-called "black jails", often located in suburban hotels, abandoned buildings or other nondescript housing facilities.

Last year many people - including renowned artist Ai Weiwei - were illegally held in locations away from formal detention areas, sometimes for months.

"This legislation goes even further, legitimising secret detentions without accountability," said Bob Dietz, CPJ's Asia programme coordinator.

Several online posts calling for a delay of the vote were curbed by censors after garnering more than 18,000 responses or reposts, say RSF and Freedom House.

CPJ says police and prosecutors frequently flout procedure when arresting journalists, particularly in regions with ethnic tension. At least 27 journalists were in Chinese prisons when CPJ conducted its annual census on 1 December. More than half were from minority groups, such as Tibetans and Uighurs.

Tibetan filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen disappeared in Chinese custody after being arrested in March 2008. He was later charged in December 2009 with "inciting separatism" for documenting the views of ordinary Tibetans in the lead up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He has been tortured while in detention, is in poor health and has been denied medical treatment. Join the filmmaker's wife, Lhamo Tso, in calling for his release. Sign the petition here.

RSF also raised concerns about a new rule that took effect on 16 March that requires microblog users in Beijing to register with their real identities to post online. Other major cities are expected to follow soon. Of the 250 million people who use Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter that is seen as a key source of news and debate, only 19 million had registered by Friday afternoon, according to news reports.

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