Image: Activist Liu Dejun in a "black jail" in Beijing
Greg Baker  /  AP file
Human-rights activist Liu Dejun looks through a room in a "black jail" in Beijing. Activists said more than a dozen illegal detention centers known as "black jails" exist in Beijing.
updated 8/9/2009 10:48:48 PM ET 2009-08-10T02:48:48

The 20-year-old student spoke softly but firmly as she described how a dispute over grades led to her rape at an unofficial jail.

She had been expelled from college because of poor exam scores, so she went to the capital city to petition the Chinese government to reinstate her. Thousands of Chinese travel to Beijing every year to air complaints ignored by local authorities, ranging from real estate scams to wrongful death cases.

But shortly after the student arrived, she was picked up by police. She was delivered to a run-down hotel and dumped in a locked room filled with other detainees. There, a guard raped her.

The student's case has put a spotlight on China's "black jails," where rights groups say growing numbers of people seeking justice from the government end up. Rights groups say these petitioners are routinely chased by provincial officials or thugs-for-hire who round them up before they can reach the central government. The officials fear the complaints may cost them a promotion or a job or trigger investigations.

Hong Kong-based advocacy group Chinese Human Rights Defenders has documented more than a dozen black jails in Beijing, where hundreds of people are routinely held against their will, said researcher Wang Songlian. Many, like the large store room where the student was detained, are in shabby hotels. Another well-known one is in an abandoned factory.

"Some are fitted with bars," Wang said. "Often the conditions are very poor ... there is no limit to how long you could be held. You could also be mistreated, not fed, not able to see a doctor. You could be beaten, we have recorded cases of that."

Government denies existence of jails
The black jails mushroomed in the capital ahead of the 2008 Olympics last year because local officials were particularly anxious about petitioners using the high-profile event to publicize their grievances, said Wang. It has continued and apparently expanded since then, she said, amid pressure from Beijing on provinces to handle grievances themselves.

The various black jails tend to hold petitioners from specific areas of the country. While the central government does not have a direct role in managing them, it has not cracked down either, despite evidence of collusion between law enforcers and the people who run the jails.

The government denies they even exist.

Song Hansong, a representative from China's highest prosecutor's office, told the U.N. Rights Council earlier this year there was "no such things as black jails in our country."

For centuries, petitioners have traveled to Beijing to seek justice. During imperial times, they would plead to the emperor. Today, they come, mostly from the impoverished countryside, to air grievances caused or overlooked by authorities in their home town or city.

The former college student sat in a park near a Beijing police station as she told her story. Several times during the interview, she said she was afraid, and at the end she grabbed a reporter's arm and begged her not to leave.

"I am afraid, afraid because I've never even dated or had a boyfriend, never done anything sexual," she said, in a calm but incredulous voice.

‘Eat like a pig and sleep like a dog’
She said she arrived in Beijing on July 31 after a 10-hour train journey from Jieshou city in southeastern Anhui province. She came to complain that her college expelled her and refused to let her switch to another major.

She was picked up by police Monday near Tiananmen Square and taken to an assistance center on the south side of the city. There, she was handed over to men who said they would give her a place to stay, then take her back to her hometown.

They delivered her to the Juyuan Guesthouse, a four-story hotel offering basic rooms rented hourly or for the night. But she wasn't given a room.

At the end of a hallway on the ground floor of the hotel is a filthy store room crammed with metal-framed bunk beds and old blankets. There are no mattresses or pillows. Garbage litters the floor and bare bulbs hang from the crumbling ceiling. There is a small squat toilet in the corner and a bolted door made of plywood that opens onto the hotel's parking lot.

The student said she arrived in the evening, after the other detainees had finished dinner.

"I asked another petitioner what I could eat and they said: 'Here you will eat like a pig and sleep like a dog,'" she said.

Police ignore rape report
Later that night, one of the guards flirted with her. When she refused his advances, the man forced his way on to her bed, an upper bunk, and raped her, she said.

Wang Quliang, a male petitioner who slept nearby, said he heard the student crying, and when the guard jumped down from the bunk, he heard her scream: "He raped me."

Liu Dejun, a Beijing human rights and democracy activist, said at least 11 people witnessed the attack, and he has interviewed three of them on videotape.

The guard fled after the rape, witnesses said. About 50 detainees, including the student, broke through the wooden door and ran away Tuesday morning, taking two bloody sheets with them as evidence of the assault. About 10 went to the local police station to report the rape but say they were ignored.

The group later went to the Beijing Public Security Bureau headquarters, where the student was taken away in a police van by officers.

Juyuan staff, including the guest house manager, who would only give his surname, Zhang, denied the store room ever housed petitioners. They say the space was once a set for a television drama and hasn't been used since.

Up to 80 people held in room
But a 33-year-old woman from Henan province said she also was held there after she came to petition the government over the seizure of her family's land. Petitioners are pushed into the room and not allowed to leave until officials from their hometowns pick them up and pay their bill, which is 100-150 yuan ($14-22) per night, she said.

She said about 70 to 80 people were held in the room at a time, with seven or eight guards watching them. They were mostly from Henan, which is next door to the student's province of Anhui.

The woman, who asked that her name not be published for fear of retribution, said detainees had no access to telephones and were forced to eat whatever they were given, usually cornmeal porridge and pickles, sometimes rice and vegetables. She spent 18 days there.

"Everyone is taken in through the hotel lobby, so at first they think 'Oh, it's a hotel, it's not so bad,'" said the woman. "But then they take you down a hallway and open the door to this room where it's a very different story."

She and others said guards would routinely shout at and beat petitioners, often targeting the older ones.

She alleged the jail was run by Liu Xiangyang, an official from Tongbai county in Henan who lived with his wife in room 109. A receptionist confirmed that a man by that name sometimes lived at the hotel but said he was not there Friday. Calls to the Tongbai county government rang unanswered.

Little hope of crackdown
In a statement faxed to the AP, the Beijing Public Security Bureau's spokesman's office said an investigation into the rape allegations had been opened and a suspect identified.

"No effort is being spared in making an arrest," the statement said.

It did not respond to questions about the current whereabouts of the student or whether black jails like the one operating at the Juyuan Guesthouse are allowed under Chinese law.

Liu held out little hope of a crackdown on black jails unless there were wider reforms of the legal and bureaucratic system.

"President Hu Jintao is always talking about stability and harmony," he said. "Preserving stability now means suppressing these petitioners because our legal system is not independent and there is no democratic oversight."

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