Charges of illegal detention of petitioners filed against a number of people in Beijing have shed a rare light on the operation of so-called black jails in the capital.
The case, which some reports have said was heard by a Beijing court late last month, is seen by legal experts as evidence that the authorities want to crack down on illegal treatment of petitioners. But they also said the authorities would not take drastic measures to curb illegal detention.
Petitioners have long complained of being detained in unofficial detention centres.
An indictment issued by a Beijing prosecutor said Wang Gaowei from Henan, who started operating a black jail in Beijing's Chaoyang district in February, allegedly hired several thugs to abduct four petitioners from the province in the capital on April 28, forcing them into a car that was taken to a black jail.
The petitioners were sent home the next day but returned to Beijing to report the case to police, who charged Wang and his aides with illegal detention.
Ten people - three of them under the age of 18 - were prosecuted, the Southern Metropolis Daily cited unnamed sources as saying, adding that the court had yet to deliver a written verdict after hearing the case for the second time late last month.
Confusion over the case arose on Sunday after the state-run Beijing Youth Daily said the Chaoyang District People's Court had jailed the 10 defendants for up to 18 months last Wednesday. But several other state-run newspapers, including the People's Daily and the Global Times, said the Beijing Youth Daily report was untrue, with court spokesman Huang Shuo as saying the case was pending.
A spokesman for the prosecutor's office said yesterday the case had been passed to the district court, which could not be reached for comment.
Legal experts said the case was a step forward by the authorities in addressing the grievances of petitioners, but added that they would not be getting too optimistic about the development.
"The officials who are behind the black jails are not being prosecuted," said Guangzhou-based rights lawyer Tang Jingling . "I don't expect there will be any major policy shift regarding petitioners."
Xu Zhiyong , a Beijing-based legal activist, said mainland courts had handed down at least four guilty verdicts for illegal detentions of petitioners over the past two years, but the victims of the cases were unaware of them. Some black jail operators received suspended prison sentences, he added.
A court in Beijing's Changping district handed down a verdict against nine people who were involved in operating black jails in June. But Yang Tingzhong, a Jiangsu petitioner involved in the case, said the court would not divulge the verdict despite repeated requests. "The court just said a verdict was handed down," she said.
Li Fangping , a lawyer based in Beijing, said the confusion over Wang's case and the lenient sentences indicated that the central government wanted to adopt a low-key approach. "High-profile handling would mean [admitting] that there are a lot of black jails in Beijing."
Additional reporting by Mimi Lau, Laura Zhou