China is set to pass landmark legislation granting more rights to detainees, but human rights organisations and relatives of some of those already being held are concerned that it will have little effect on the activities of so-called secret “black jails”.
The revised criminal procedure law, which is expected to be passed by the country’s legislature on Wednesday, would render all evidence collected under torture unusable, grant suspects immediate access to a lawyer and oblige authorities to tell families within 24 hours of a relative’s detention, among other measures.
But Nicholas Bequelin, a senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera on Tuesday that there were concerns over whether the reforms would have a positive impact in cases other than straightforward criminal detentions, such as those concerning national security, terrorism or corruption.
“The positives are that, on paper, most criminal defendents will have better rights,” said Bequelin.
“But the problem is the law also has big loopholes. It in particular gives the authority to the police to suspend notification and to effectively secretly detain people in a number of cases… This is really a major concern and probably a step back in terms of progress towards the rule of law.”.
He noted that another provision would allow police to detain people for up to six months without informing anyone of their whereabouts.
“These people are [detained] in places that the police choose themselves. Not a formal detention centre, but a police guest house or any place really that they want to keep someone in.”
In Beijing, Al Jazeera’s Melissa Chan joined one woman seeking information about her missing daughter and others who said their family members had been detained at one such facility – known in China as ‘black jails’.
“These black jails are essentially extra-legal secret detention centres that allow officials to throw anyone in there that they want, without charge and without arrest,” our correspondent said.
“Most of the people in black jails are not petty criminals, but rather ordinary citizens who have stories of corruption to tell.
“Precisely because their evidence threatens the government, officials whose interests would be harmed by any revelations go after them,” she said, adding that the centres allowed authorities to bypass the law, as no one imprisoned there was given any due process.
“There are black jails despite the new criminal procedure law that’s going to be passed,” Chan said. “The showpiece legislation will only matter if it is actually enforced.”
‘No secret arrests’
Some legal experts in Beijing argue that so-called “secret arrests” do not exist in China, having never been legislated for withing either the current legal system or in amendments to the criminal procedure law.
“It should not be called secret arrest,” Song Yinghui, a professor in Beijing Normal University, told the Associated Press news agency on Monday.
“Even the circumstance of interference with crime investigation happens and family members are not informed, the suspect can still get a defender and the defender is well informed. So we have no secret arrest in our country.”
On Sunday, Wang Shengjun, the head judge of China’s highest court, told the country’s parliament that reforms were needed to overcome lingering problems with transparency and corrupt judges.
He said that the court would work to create a better legal environment to protect economic and social development and would deepen judicial reform in 2012.
China’s legislature has underlined the principle of “respecting and safeguarding human rights” by explicitly writing it into the draft amendment of the law, the Chinese Xinhua news agency reported.
The current criminal procedure law was enacted in 1979 and amended in 1996. latest current revision was submitted to the National People’s Congress (NPC) standing committee for a first reading in August 2011 and for a second reading in December 2011.