Many freed from Beijing's biggest 'black jail'
Some of those released see the move, on Rule of Law Day, as a sign new leaders intend to curb illegal imprisonment; rights activists doubtful
Mandy Zuo and Shi Jiangtao
Hundreds of petitioners have been released from one of Beijing's biggest "black jails" - detention centres where people from across the country are illegally detained after petitioning against local injustices.
The unusual mass release, which coincided with Tuesday's Rule of Law Promotion Day, encouraged many petitioners, who took it as a signal that the new Communist Party leadership intends to rein in the practice.
But some rights activists and lawyers called on authorities to take much more drastic measures, with some noting that petitioners who arrived in the capital over the past two days have still been detained.
The release came amid extensive mainland media coverage of recent charges filed by prosecutors against a number of people who allegedly operated black jails in Beijing, sparking debate over whether top authorities are trying to curb the illegal treatment of petitioners.
A well-known detention hub in southern Beijing's Jiujingzhuang village, officially named the Jiujingzhuang Relief Services Centre, released more than 300 petitioners on Tuesday night, two petitioners from Zhejiang province said.
They were sent to the centre in several batches by bus starting early in the morning and released together that night, according to the two petitioners, who were among those released. The total number of people detained that day remains unclear, although some online postings claimed it reached 10,000.
Shen Zhihua, a woman from Zhejiang's Anji city, said she was detained in a room called "Zhejiang hall" after arriving at the China Central Television Tower in Haidian district in an attempt to petition. She was immediately whisked away, along with dozens of other petitioners, to Jiujingzhuang in the morning.
"There are dozens of other halls in the centre, one for each province," she said. Petitioners were placed in different halls according to the region they were from, and those in the "Zhejiang hall", numbering 300 to 400 by the end of the day, were set free.
She said two other petitioners from Shandong told her that the "Shandong hall" was emptied that night too.
Shentu Dabing, a petitioner also from Anji, said he saw dozens of halls in the centre, but could not see how many people were there.
Petitioners traditionally gather in front of the state television tower on Rule of Law Promotion Day, and police are well prepared for this, said Li Wei, a petitioner from Beijing. He estimated that about 1,500 people were taken from the tower by bus to Jiujingzhuang on Tuesday.
He said he didn't see policemen pulling petitioners onto the vehicles as in past years. "Some who did not get onto the buses said in private, 'It seems things are better this year'," he said.
Chen Yongmiao, a Beijing-based political analyst and rights activist, doubted that was true. "People tend to wish for things to get better when a new leader takes office and one simple gesture can be interpreted as a big move," Chen said.
He said comments that new party leader Xi Jinping made about China's legal situation on Tuesday were almost the same as what President Hu Jintao said 10 years ago.
Yuan Yulai, a lawyer from Zhejiang specialising in administrative lawsuits, said authorities must be more proactive.
"The people's congresses at provincial levels should be given more rights in regard to the appointment and removal of cadres, so that many cases in which people are now petitioning the central government can be solved locally," he said.