China media retract report of black jail sentences

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 December, 2012, 2:17pm
UPDATED : Monday, 03 December, 2012, 3:41pm

Chinese state media said on Monday that a court has yet to sentence 10 defendants for the highly sensitive crime of illegally detaining people seeking to have their complaints heard by the central government, retracting earlier reports.

The Beijing Youth Daily newspaper reported on Sunday that the Chaoyang District Court had sentenced one defendant to a year and a half in prison on November 28 and given months-long sentences to nine other men. The Guangmingwang website and other official news outlets carried the newspaper’s report.

By Monday, Guangmingwang and the People’s Daily and Global Times newspapers said the original report was not true. There was no immediate explanation for the turnaround, and repeated calls to the court seeking clarification rang unanswered. Editors at the Beijing Youth Daily could also no immediately be reached for comment.

The defendants in the case have not been identified, but the Global Times quoted a court spokesman as acknowledging such a case was pending.

“The court did not pass sentence on a case like that on that day and we are investigating to what extent the story was untrue,” it quoted court spokesman Huang Shuo as saying. Huang gave no details on whether it had gone to trial.

Illegal detention of petitioners is believed to be common, but like all legal and public order issues in China, is a matter of great sensitivity. Such petitioners are intercepted by local government agents and detained illegally in shabby hostels commonly known as “black jails”.

The Beijing Youth Daily and Guangmingwang website had said on Sunday that police acting on a complaint raided a compound in the northeastern suburbs of Beijing in May and freed a dozen illegally detained petitioners who said they had been beaten and threatened for having brought their complaints to the capital.

The government has recently begun acknowledging the existence of black jails as part of modest attempts to stamp out the most glaring abuses of power, but has met with only middling success. A central government order to close representative offices maintained in Beijing by local governments for the purpose of blocking complaints and lobbying for projects and funding has been mostly ignored.

The petitioning system harkens back to ancient times when Chinese emperors were obligated to hear complaints brought from commoners in the provinces. In recent years, it has been employed to skirt violence, threats, and bureaucratic hurdles put in place to block redress over corruption, illegal land seizures, unjust discrimination and other abuses at the local level.

Black jails have also been used in the past to detain political and religious dissidents, especially members of the outlawed Falun Gong meditation movement.