A Chinese court has sentenced ten operators of “black jails”–secret detention centers for petitioners, who often face torture and other abuses while there–to prison terms ranging from six months to two years. The sentence is also a tacit admission to the existence of such facilities, something the regime has consistently denied.
The Beijing court charged Wang Gaowei, the main defendant in the case, for renting two yards in Beijing’s Chaoyang district and hiring several roughs to detain petitioners from Henan Province who were airing their grievances in the Chinese capital about various issues they face in their home province, state-run media reported. These “black jails,” which achieved notoriety in China, are used to temporarily hold petitioners in Beijing before they are sent back home.
In an incident in February 2012, four people who were jailed in Wang’s facility were injured before going back to Henan, according to the state-run China Daily. They came back two months later and reported their detention to police, who then raided Wang’s center and arrested him.
Helping to incentivize the black jail system is the fact that Chinese Communist Party officials are penalized via a point system when a petitioner from their region makes it to the central appeals office in Beijing, according to the China Daily.
In these usually run-down facilities, petitioners face torture, rape, beatings, and even death.
Petitioners involved in Wang’s case were angry at the Beijing court’s sentencing because local officials, who they believed were responsible for their detention, were not implicated in any of the crimes.
“The verdict said they had nothing to do with the local government, how can this be?” said Jia Qiuxia, a petitioner, according to the South China Morning Post.
Four of the victims were given around 2,400 yuan ($385) in compensation, but said that this was not enough to cover their injuries or mental suffering sustained from being beaten by guards. Jia said that despite the defendants’ sentencing, she thinks that “black jails” will persist around China. “We still hear about other people being taken away,” she told the paper.
Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch said that the sentences will send a message to other local Communist Party officials who might be thinking about intercepting petitioners in Beijing. But he said that punishing the hired thugs responsible for setting up the jails does not solve the root problem.
“Beijing will continue to look the other way as long as petitioners are seen as disturbing the image of the capital,” Bequelin told the Morning Post.
Hong Kong-based human rights researcher Joshua Rosenzweig told The Associated Press that the case is “certainly significant, but it’s also probably the tip of the iceberg.”
It remains to be seen if the Chinese regime will continue to pursue similar cases against “black jail” operators, Rosenzweig said, or if this week’s sentencing was just a once-off.
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