Exposé of abused grandmother puts harsh spotlight on China's 'black jails'

A woman petitioning for justice for her son was repeatedly held and beaten in an illegal jail. The resulting publicity from state-run media is raising hopes that officials will stop such abuses.

By , Staff Writer

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    Zhang Fengmei, who was illegally held in a "black jail" for publicly demanding justice for her son, speaks in Nanyang, China on Feb. 23, 2014. She says she was tortured and unjustly imprisoned.
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Zhang Fengmei, a kindly looking gray-haired grandmother, couldn’t sleep. Four nights she had spent alone, on the floor under a quilt, since the police had thrown her into this secret jail tucked into a quiet courtyard. No one had told her how long she would be kept prisoner. 

When two men came into her cell soon after midnight and silently dismantled the CCTV cameras mounted high on the walls, however, she knew something was up.

The next morning, on Feb. 14, Ms. Zhang was told to leave. The city officials who had been guarding her gave her no explanations, nor any discharge papers. They had processed no documents on her arrival earlier in the week either. As the provincial government admitted after a Chinese newspaper reported on grandma Zhang’s ordeal, her detention was wholly illegal. 

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But not, perhaps, without its redeeming features.

Chinese newspaper readers and bloggers are following her case, lawyers are planning lawsuits, and government officials are finding the story hard to ignore. All this unusual fuss suggests that Beijing may at last be cracking down on the “black jails” where local officials have often shut troublemakers away with no regard for the law. 

“This case is a warning to the agencies that lock people up illegally,” says He Bing, deputy head of the law school at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing. “Now they know that if they get caught they’ll be in trouble.”

“The central and provincial governments’ response to Zhang Fengmei’s case shows some positive changes from the past,” adds Li Heping, a well-known human rights lawyer. But he remains cautious. “We’ll have to wait and see how broad the implications are."

It is only two months since China abolished its “re-education through labor” system, which had allowed the police to send someone to a labor camp for up to four years with no need for a trial. In Nanyang, complains Ms. Zhang’s eldest son, Yang Jinyou, “they just replaced labor camps with these admonishment centers.” 

The public attention that Zhang’s incarceration has drawn, the family hopes, may also achieve what she has been seeking all along – freedom for her second son.

Case study in local officials' abuse

Yang Jinde was left paralyzed by a police beating and then sentenced to 18 years in jail on trumped-up charges, his lawyers and other supporters say. Law professors in Beijing now use his experience as a case study in how local officials in China can abuse their power, but appeals to grant Mr. Yang medical parole have gone unheeded.

His mother has been making those appeals for the past two years outside the gates of the Justice Ministry in Beijing. It was that activity that landed her in a cell in the “Nanyang City Abnormal Petitioning Admonishment Center.” Zhang Fengmei is a “petitioner,” one of a small army of citizens seeking redress for perceived injustices by trying to plead their cases with senior officials.

The tradition dates back to imperial times. The central government would like to trim it, by making local officials better at resolving disputes. Those officials, however, often try simply to silence petitioners for fear their complaints will reflect badly on them.

But efforts by the authorities in this grimy, anonymous city in the central Chinese province of Henan to silence Zhang appear to have backfired.

Six times, Nanyang officials have traveled to Beijing to catch Zhang and bring her home; five times, she has returned to the capital to resume her vigil outside the ministry, or occasionally near Zhongnanhai, the government headquarters next to the Forbidden City. She says she will be back again soon.

Black jail dismantled 

On Feb. 9, she recalls, six uniformed policemen escorted her in a minivan on the 14-hour drive from Beijing to Nanyang, and delivered her to the “admonishment center.” There she was thrown into a darkened room. Her wails, and threats to kill herself by banging her head against the wall, were ignored.

For the next few days, she was kept in the room. Every now and again, she says, a plainclothes policeman or other local government official would come to remonstrate with her about her stubbornness, or threaten that if she continued to petition in Beijing she would be sent to jail.

She knew where she was. She had been held in the same place for two days in January, and she recognized the row of green metal doors and barred windows on the ground floor of a nondescript building in an empty courtyard, just off a busy shopping street near the railroad station. The unofficial jail even had a plaque by the entrance.

No more signs

That plaque has gone now, as have the CCTV cameras in the cells and a 6-ft. 6-in. metal fence that once shielded the center, according to former inmates. 

Officials hurriedly shut the center down a few hours after the Beijing News had published an article about it. One of the paper’s journalists had read posts on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like social media platform, by Zhang’s daughter Yang Jinfen. She was relaying news from one of her brothers in Nanyang, who had gone to the “admonishment center” and spotted his mother through a window.

Even as city officials dismantled the prison, their superiors in the Henan provincial government were decrying the jail, and similar centers elsewhere in the province, as “unlawful,” according to the state-run news agency Xinhua.

Xinhua sent out 11 investigative teams to close down such illegal centers, the agency added. The next day, other state-run media took up the story.

If the Chinese government had wanted to censor Yang Jinfen’s Weibo posts, or forbid media from reporting the story, it could have done so. That it did not, suggests that top officials think it is time to eradicate the “black jails” which mock the government’s repeated claims that it is establishing the rule of law.

“Government policy is getting better,” believes Zhang’s eldest son, Yang Jinyou. “If it wasn’t, Beijing News would never have dared publish the story.”

Central government conundrum 

Legal reformers won a victory with the recent abolition of “re-education through labor,” and the government is keen to take credit for that widely popular step.

“Beijing won’t let local governments wantonly lock people up in an ad hoc system that has no legal basis,” says Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch. “That is worse than what they have just abolished.”

At the same time, he says, “they don’t want petitioners coming to Beijing, which faces local authorities with a conundrum.”

There have been signs in recent months of the central government’s discomfort with the illegality of methods that local governments have used to keep petitioners out of sight. Last July, seven men were sentenced to prison for having run a “black jail” in the Beijing suburbs where they had locked up petitioners from Henan. 

(Read the Monitor's Peter Ford exclusive: How a Chinese prisoner release reveals business as usual at 'black jail' )

On Tuesday, the ruling Communist party’s Central Committee unveiled reforms to the petitioning system promising that “any malpractice that constrains the public from legal petitioning will be rectified and prohibited.”

But the petitioning system “has plenty of problems,” the State Bureau for Letters and Calls, the agency in charge of the system, acknowledged in a statement Wednesday. 

Local authorities are reluctant to address their own shortcomings and higher-level administrators often refuse to accept petitions, so thousands of petitioners every year feel their only remedy is to petition top-level officials in Beijing. That, though, is what the government calls “abnormal” petitioning. 

At the Nanyang “admonishment center,” “they told me that I had broken the law by going to Beijing to petition,” says Zhang Fengmei. But all her efforts to petition lower-level government agencies had been rebuffed, she complains.

From real estate deal to cage imprisonment 

She had taken care to follow the approved step-by-step petitioning procedure, she explains, precisely because of what had happened to her son, Yang Jinde.

He was a prosperous Nanyang car dealer who lost a 2010 lawsuit over a real estate deal but refused to obey a court order. He was fined for contempt of court, but when some of his employees demonstrated against the ruling outside the judge’s office, the police hit one of them over the head and injured him.

Mr. Yang went straight to Beijing to petition for a review of the judge’s ruling and compensation for his employee. He didn’t bother with local petitioning offices, his sister explains, “because he didn’t believe they would pay him any attention.” 

Nanyang officials were furious that Yang was washing their dirty laundry in public and giving them a bad name in Beijing, says his lawyer, Yang Dafei. Among the criteria by which local officials in China are judged is the number of petitioning cases in their district. “They were really concerned that they would have a blot on their record and find it hard to get promoted,” lawyer Yang explains.

In retribution, he says, policemen locked Yang Jinde in a cage in a police dog training center in the woods near Nanyang airport, where they beat and tortured him for several days. The next time his family saw him, nine months later in court, he was on a stretcher, paralyzed and blind in one eye.

Yang was found guilty of mafia crimes and eventually sentenced to 18 years in jail. He now lies in a vegetative state in a prison hospital, his relatives say, completely blind and unable to talk or move his legs.

“That case was a grave abuse of power by local officials and a miscarriage of justice,” says He Bing, the law professor. 

The family’s repeated efforts to win medical parole for Yang have so far come to naught. But they hope that some of the attention being paid to Zhang Fengmei’s experience may rub off on her son. 

“The legal interest in my mother’s case will focus new interest in my brother’s case,” hopes Yang Jinyou. “I hope my mother’s stay in the ‘admonishment center’ can help free my brother.”

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