More must be done on mainland detentions

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 November, 2009, 12:00am

Mainland police enjoy sweeping powers. An example is the way they operate the country's notorious detention centres. Once inside, a detainee has few or no rights, and can be kept for weeks or even months without being charged. Calls have repeatedly been made to reform the detention system and its more egregious abuses. Belatedly, after several widely publicised deaths of detainees under brutal or mysterious circumstances, tentative steps are being taken with a new draft law to reform the system.

But while this is a welcome start to giving Chinese citizens protection from abuse, much more needs to be done. For example, the draft law does not address so-called black jails - a glaring omission. These are often hotel rooms where petitioners for justice are kept for days or even weeks to stop them filing formal complaints to the central government. Shenzhen, for example, has announced that police are, again, authorised to detain troublesome petitioners and send them to labour camps. This must stop.

A first step should be to guarantee basic rights for detainees. Currently, lawyers and family members are routinely denied access to detainees, and sometimes not even informed of their detention. Facilities at most detention centres are primitive. A divide-and-conquer strategy is often used whereby favoured detainees are given special rights to supervise other detainees. Criminal suspects and administrative or migration detainees are put in the same cells. For example, a drunk driver or an illegal migrant worker may end up in the same cell with criminal suspects. Violence is common. There have been at least 16 reported 'unnatural' fatalities in the mainland's 3,000-plus detention centres this year.

The new draft law, if passed, would mean detention centres could no longer hold criminal suspects. Families and lawyers must be notified of detention, injury or death within 12 to 24 hours; and they must be given access to detainees. Those in detention cannot be sent to forced labour, as some are at the moment. Authorities must ensure the new rules are seriously enforced if the draft law is passed.