They come in search of justice – but end up thrown into jail

Report reveals how Chinese citizens with grievances are being silenced in prisons the government says do not exist

They travel thousands of miles to Beijing to bring their problems – land-grabbing, bullying, eviction or abuse by local officials – to the government's attention. But instead of obtaining justice, a shocking new report reveals that many are thrown into sordid and illegal "black jails" where they may be abused, beaten, tortured, raped, robbed, and deprived of food, sleep and medical care.

The Chinese government says such jails are a myth. "Things like this do not exist in China," a Ministry of Foreign Affairs official said in April. In June the government reiterated this stance when an official declared: "There are no black jails in the country." But the publication on the eve of Barack Obama's visit to China of such overwhelming evidence of secret abuse at the heart of the governing system will be a grave embarrassment to his hosts.

Survivors of the black jails have given detailed accounts of the horrors they experienced there. Li Ruirui was 20 years old when she came from Anhui province to petition the government about what she said was mistreatment by her classmates and schoolteachers. But instead of presenting her petition she was locked in a filthy store-room with other petitioners where they were watched over by a gang of thugs, one of whom raped her, she claims.

"The main reason I came to Beijing to petition was that I was mocked in school by my teachers and classmates," she said. "I was forced to go to the Juyuan Hotel ... [where] I was living with more than 10 people in a dining room. Men and women, we all lived together. We slept in bunk beds ... The beds and the room were very dirty and messy. The guards forbade us to go out."

A 46-year-old from Jiangsu province, more than 1,000km from the Chinese capital, cried with fear and frustration as she recalled her abduction. "Two people dragged me by the hair and put me in their car," she said. "My hands were tied and I couldn't move. Then [after arriving back in Jiangsu] they put me inside a room where there were two women who stripped me of my clothes ...[and] beat my head [and] stamped on my body."

A 43-year-old from the same province, who travelled to Beijing to complain about being illegally evicted from her home, which was then demolished, was met off the train by four men who did not identify themselves. "They said I had to co-operate with their work, but they never told me what their work was," she said. She was forced to spend 36 days in a black jail in Jiangsu.

For thousands of years, ordinary Chinese people wishing to obtain justice have travelled to the capital to petition those in authority. The custom survived the transition to Communism and all the upheavals of the past 50 years. For many years, petitioners were heard during the National People's Congress, China's annual parliament. Officially the practice is still lauded by the rulers of the People's Republic. In March, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao praised the system as a "mechanism to resolve social conflicts, and guide the public to express their requests and interests through legal channels".

But in An Alleyway in Hell, Human Rights Watch reveals that, instead of getting a fair hearing for their problems, Chinese citizens are often thrown into improvised cells that may be squalid store-rooms in cheap hotels or rooms in state-owned guest houses, nursing homes or psychiatric hospitals. Government officials, police officers and hired thugs grab them, incarcerate them and intimidate them into giving up their quest for justice.

Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said: "The existence of black jails in the heart of Beijing makes a mockery of the Chinese government's rhetoric on improving human rights and respecting the rule of law. The government should move swiftly to close these facilities, investigate those running them, and provide assistance to those abused in them."

The reason for locking petitioners up is apparently to slow their flow, discourage others, and prevent them from making trouble for local authorities. The testimony of the victims makes for harrowing reading.

"[The guards] entered without a word, and grabbed me," said one former detainee. "They kneed me in the chest and pounded my lower belly with their fists until I passed out. After it was over I was in pain, but they didn't leave a mark on my body."

The petitioners' complaints range from illegal land grabs and government corruption to police torture. Their first port of call is the "letters and visits" office of their provincial capital. If they fail to get satisfaction from the local officials, petitioners head to Beijing to plead their cases. But in the past few years it has become a dangerous practice. Any petitioners seen near Tiananmen Square, for example, are rounded up and often thrown into the detention centres, which are also known euphemistically as "petitioners' hotels".

The black jails have sprung up since the Chinese government abolished the arbitrary detention of vagrants and other people who arrive in the city without a residence permit. Local government officials are also under pressure to stop petitioners travelling to Beijing and other cities to demand justice, and they have to endure bureaucratic penalties when there is a large flow of petitioners from their areas. As a result they are happy for the petitioners to be locked up and intimidated.

Although the government denies that the jails exist, state media have published reports about them. The majority of the former black jail detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch were seized without any legal grounds and not told why they were being detained. One of them said: "I asked why they were detaining me, and as a group [the guards] came in and punched and kicked me and said they wanted to kill me. I loudly cried for help and they stopped, but from then on, I didn't dare [risk another beating]."

One former detainee, a 15-year-old girl abducted from the streets of Beijing while petitioning on behalf of her crippled father, was locked up in a nursing home in Gansu province for more than two months and subjected to severe beatings. "To visit these kinds of abuses on citizens who have already been failed by the legal system is the height of hypocrisy," said Richardson.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Full Stack Software Developer - Javascript

£18000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Strategic Partnerships Coordinator

£16000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Their research appears at the f...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Manchester

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Engineer

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This exciting startup disruptin...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen