Rare victory for petitioners as 10 hired thugs are convicted over 'black jail'

Hired thugs who roughed up and illegally detained complainants are handed jail terms, but officials who hired them remain unpunished

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 February, 2013, 5:22am

A Beijing court yesterday sentenced 10 people to prison for illegally detaining petitioners in a "black jail" after they tried to lobby the central government to handle their grievances - a rare victory for petitioners who are often subject to abuse.

Many local governments on the mainland employ thugs to rough up and detain petitioners from their provinces in run-down hostels known as black jails, to prevent them from taking their complaints to the central government. Officials fear that exposure of their misdeeds undermines their chances of promotion.

Xinhua said the 10 defendants, all peasants from Henan province aged 17 to 32, were given sentences ranging from six months to two years for illegally detaining petitioners last year. Three juvenile defendants received suspended sentences.

Xinhua said the men intercepted four petitioners on the night of April 28 and forcefully drove them to a rented house, where they were kept until the next evening, when they were sent back to Henan. They later returned to Beijing to report the case and police arrested the defendants on May 2. Xinhua said the main defendant, Wang Gaowei , rented two houses on the outskirts of Beijing used for holding petitioners from Henan. It said the defendants were hired by a man called Fu Zhaoxin.

The Southern Metropolis Daily said Fu was Wang's uncle and was responsible for hiring young men in their village, adding most of them were from impoverished families.

The report quoted Wang's father as saying his son was asked by the Yuzhou city officials to work in Beijing: "[They] said they found him a good job."

Petitioners involved in the case told the Post yesterday they were outraged that the court absolved the officials responsible for setting up the black jail.

"The verdict said they had nothing to do with the local government, how can this be?" asked Jia Qiuxia, one of the petitioners.

Four of them were given compensation of 2,400 yuan (about HK$3,000), but three told the Post the amount was not enough to cover the injuries and mental anguish they suffered as they were beaten by the guards. Jia said she did not believe illegal detention of petitioners would cease despite the outcome of the court case: "We still hear about other people being taken away."

Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch said the move was "more about reining in the black jails system than eradicating it".

The sentencing would have a "moderating effect" by making other officials think twice before detaining people illegally, he said. But punishing only the people hired to operate the black jails instead of the officials who set them up meant these facilities would continue to exist.

"Beijing will continue to look the other way as long as petitioners are seen as disturbing the image of the capital," Bequelin said.

Petitioning has its roots in imperial times when ordinary people were able to make their pleas heard by the emperors by sending their petitions to the court.

Teng Biao , a legal scholar, said the injustices that led people to petition officials should be resolved through the rule of law and freedom of speech, which are sadly lacking.