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China human rights record stirs struggle at home

February 10, 2009

Sun Feb 8, 2009 11:43pm EST

By Chris Buckley

BEIJING (Reuters) - China defends its handling of human rights under the
glare of international scrutiny this week, while homegrown activists are
waging their own scrappier battle over secretive detentions in the
nation's capital.

A meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council starting in Geneva on Monday
gives groups and governments a chance to press Beijing on secretive
executions and jailed dissidents as well as labor camps and other forms
of detention.

Yet contention over China's restrictions on its citizens is not confined
to international conference rooms. Activists at home have also been
galvanized, most recently against what locals call "black jails" --
detention centers holding protesters without official procedures or
right to appeal.

"These black jails are clearly against the law. But local officials call
them legal study classes, and that shows how they treat the law as just
a tool for abusing rights," said Zhang Jianping, an activist in eastern
Jiangsu province who runs a website focused on grassroots rights issues.

Despite the ruling Communist Party's censorship and crackdowns on
dissent, demands for rights are spreading throughout this increasingly
diverse and fractious society.

Some rights advocates said the detentions should be a top issue at the
three-day U.N. "universal periodic review" of China, which opens while
some countries may be more focused on Beijing's potential role in
reviving the global economy.

"In a sense, this is the biggest human rights issue, because it involves
so many people, it's so widespread, and it's so lacking in legal
justification," said Xu Zhiyong, a Beijing law lecturer and rights
advocate who has organized "guerrilla" citizen rescues of detained
petitioners.

"LAW EDUCATION CLASS"

Zheng Dajing, from central Hubei province, said the detention center he
was held in was called a "law education class" on banners inside its
small grounds. But there were no textbooks or lectures in the disused
tobacco-buying station in his home county of Yunxi that he said became
his jail for over a year.

"A banner inside said it was for us to learn about the legal system. But
there was no study or law in there," said Zheng, a plump 46-year-old
former bank clerk whose grievances snowballed from a row over home
ownership.

"The guards spent all day playing mahjong and cards."

He was one of many tens of thousands of citizens who every year travel
to Beijing to complain at government "petitions and appeals" offices
promising to help settle citizens' grievances.

But few complaints are resolved and the petitioners' rancor and
persistence often deepen. Local governments sometimes use police and
hired thugs to lure, cajole or drag petitioners away from government
offices, where their complaints may embarrass local leaders and stain
their promotion prospects.

The aggrieved farmers, workers and pensioners are then held in the
unadvertised detention centers, many on Beijing's southern outskirts and
the backroads of other cities and towns. Zheng said he was hauled into
one such "black jail" in the capital, driven back to one in his hometown
and locked up until late last year.

"Local leaders want to protect themselves, so they try to hide us away,
hide away our complaints," said Zheng.

His claims were echoed by eight petitioners interviewed by Reuters. They
spoke of cramped, dank, sometimes violent holding yards or rooms, often
run by bosses who charge local governments to keep inmates out of sight
for days, weeks or months.

When called by Reuters, Yan Zhiping, the police chief of Yunxi, denied
petitioners were detained there in a "law education" center and said
they were all treated with "civility."

But three petitioners from Yunxi, found independently of Zheng, said
they were also held in the one-time tobacco station.

"The police told me I was there to learn the law. But they're the ones
who need to learn the law," said Yuan Rongbao, a middle-aged ex-soldier
from Yunxi who said he was also held in the station for a week last year
after going to Beijing to complain about the demolition of his home.

FIGHTING WITH VIDEO AND THE INTERNET

China says in its report to the U.N. meeting that it strictly limits
detentions. A chorus of Chinese lawyers and activists disagrees, and now
they are challenging the petitioner jails.

Since last year, Xu, the rights advocate, and an expanding team of
volunteers have been descending unannounced on some of Beijing's dozen
or more bigger petitioner jails, often kept down isolated byways, to
demand the release of detainees.

In one recent raid, 30 clean-cut protesters waved copies of China's laws
against unlawful jailing and aimed video cameras at startled guards.
Accounts and footage of their protests have spread over the Internet,
and with other critical reports they are raising pressure on officials,
said Xu.

"The black jails are still there and are still totally illegal, but we
think their violence has fallen and they don't beat us up like they did
when we started," he said. Rattled officials have sometimes released
petitioners, he added.

At peak times, such as during major political meetings, the larger
"underground" detention centers in Beijing alone hold many hundreds,
waiting to be shunted out of the capital, he estimated.

Teng Biao, a Beijing rights lawyer who has also joined the campaign
against the petitioner jails, said fighting such abuses needed both
domestic and international activism.

"We need external pressure and scrutiny," he said. "But the real
improvements will need domestic breakthroughs, domestic campaigns.
Without that, human rights can't lay down firm roots."

(Editing by Nick Macfie and Dean Yates)
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