Changes to Detention Rules Are Small Victory for Activists in China

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David Gray / Reuters

Paramilitary policemen stand guard at Beijing's Tiananmen Square outside the Great Hall of the People during a session of the National People's Congress (NPC), China's annual parliament, March 8, 2012.

A controversial law that would given Chinese police broad powers to ‘disappear’ people has been modified, a limited victory for the legal and civil society advocates who opposed it. The proposed change to China’s Criminal Procedure Law includes a new provision for notifying detainees’ families, but the draft law also codifies the practice of “residential surveillance,” in which suspects in national security, terrorism and high-level fraud cases are held in secret locations. Activists including Ai Weiwei, who was detained for nearly three months without charge last spring, say the law still goes too far in curtailing rights. “I think this shows the present political mentality of lack of confidence and of fear,” Ai told Reuters.

The changes to the law were announced today at the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament. As originally written, the law would have allowed police to not inform the family of suspects detained in national security, terrorism and high-level fraud cases for up to six months if there was a risk it would compromise an investigation. The draft law, which is expected to be approved during the NPC session, now says suspects families must be informed within 24 hours. Wang Zhaoguo, vice-chairman of the NPC’s standing committee, told delegates that, “Considering together the need to prosecute crime and protect criminal suspects and the rights of the accused, it is necessary to take strong measures to strictly limit the instances of not informing family members.”

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“It’s a limited victory,” said Joshua Rosenzweig, an independent human rights researcher based in Hong Kong. “I think there are still huge questions about how well the protections that have been outlined in the law will actually be enforced. On paper there is a lot to welcome here and it points in the right direction for the most part.” The secret detention clauses, which activist Hu Jia called “KGB-like provisions” in reference to the Soviet Union’s secret police, had triggered concern among Chinese lawyers and human rights activists that it would give authorities impunity to act against political dissent. Last spring a thwarted call for Arab Spring-style protests in China led to hundreds of detentions of political activists. Some have since been charged with “inciting subversion of state power.” In addition to Ai Weiwei, who was accused of tax violations after his release, imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo and legal activist Gao Zhisheng, who has been held incommunicado and tortured by state security agents, have been detained in secret. Such cases aren’t widely covered in China.

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But other stories of average criminal suspects who have been tortured into confessions, wrongly convicted or killed while in custody have helped raised public awareness of the rights of the accused. “What’s different here is the importance of public opinion,” says Rosenzweig. “Public opinion was given a chance to be expressed and comments made on problematic issues with the law. This is the first time in history of the Criminal Procedure Law that public opinion was part of the process.” The annual National People’s Congress, which is expected to approve the changes to the law before its session ends next week, is often criticized as a “rubber-stamp parliament,” and its nearly 3,000 delegates are vetted by the ruling Communist Party. But the changes to the detention clause gives an indication of how debate and compromise can happen within the strictures of China’s authoritarian system. Despite the changes to the law, doubts remain about the degree to which police will follow the new rules on detentions. “I’d like to be more optimistic, but there hasn’t been much cause for optimism in the willingness of  police to allow their activity to be limited,” Rosenzweig says.

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