China holds citizens in secret 'black jails'

Protesters in Beijing after successfully breaking in to a 'black jail' to free inmates. Photo: ITV News

For the first time in its history China's National People's Congress is due to pass new criminal detention laws aimed at "safeguarding human rights".

But the new laws will not protect those held in so called 'black jails', secret detention centres where those who criticise the government are locked up without arrest, without charge and with no access to a lawyer.

Today I asked a Foreign Ministry spokesman how the government justified the use of Black Jails. Liu Wei Min, replied:

"There are no black jails in China, anything being done not strictly according to the law - we are trying to improve"

Black jails are anonymous looking government compounds or even small hotels used by local governments to hold people from their area who have come to the capital, Beijing, to make complaints, mainly about corruption. As local leaders are judged by the amount of complaints against them, they don't want Central Government to know. So they hire teams of thuggish looking men to scour the places where these local protesters arrive in Beijing. They pick them up and lock them up.

Yesterday I wanted to interview someone who claimed they had been held in one of the so called Black Jails. I met a woman who said she's been locked up for days with little food and water. She demonstrated to me how she had been chained up, her hands tied behind her back.

As we were talking her friend said she was going to free one of her fellow protesters held in a 'black jail' nearby.

We followed her, a small crowd in our wake. We arrived at a small government owned compound and walked in. Behind a small metal door in the corner we heard a woman shouting. Her friends had found her, she'd been inside for almost two days. Using sticks they bashed in the door grille and hauled her out, another two men emerged afterwards.

She told me she was a fifty year old former civil servant who was owed wages by the local authority and she's come to Beijing to seek help from a higher ministry. She had been picked up and jailed.

There was a police car just feet from the door but no police officers to be seen. No sign of her 'jailers' either.

She ran away and up the street as fast as she could, vomiting as she went, was it fear or the strain of her ordeal?

'We want freedom' they chanted, we'd found another 'Black Jail'. We could see around ten people peering out from behind the bars over a window of the fifth floor of a building. The sign on the entrance said it was run by the Beijing Government and it was a care centre. Inside they didn't care for my questions. 'There's no one locked up here' said the lady wearing a black army style tunic. Another man, wearing shades, posed for the camera sarcastically.

The police arrived. They took my details and insisted there was no one locked up in the building behind them.

In the car I rang one of the women up in the room on the fifth floor. 'We've been here for 5 or 6 days" she claimed 'they won't let us out'.

There's no doubt publicly China is trying to clean up the Justice system. However, the existence of these 'Black Jails' undermines any efforts by the leaders of this country to comply with international treaties on the legal rights of detainees which China has signed up to, but not ratified.

I last saw Tao Rong Mei, running down a back street as the sun set on the city. She had escaped, for now.

Black jails Credit: ITV News

The jails are buried from public view, normally inside government compounds, state-owned hotels or inside nursing homes and psychiatric hospitals.

Those who make the trip to Beijing to complain about their local corrupt officials are often held for a number of weeks. They are then often forcibly removed back into the care of the same local authority they were complaining about.

Tao Rong Mei describes what happened to her: "They locked me up inside illegally, they beat me, they swore at me, but never tried to solve my problem."

A police officer prevents ITV News from filming the protest Credit: ITV News

When the police arrived at the protest they denied that anyone was being held and the government has publicly repeatedly denied the existence of these detention centres, though Human Rights Watch uncovered evidence to the contrary back in 2009.

There's no doubt publicly China is trying to clean up the Justice system. However, the existence of these 'Black Jails' undermines any efforts by the leaders of this country to comply with international treaties on the legal rights of detainees which China has signed up to, but not ratified.

I last saw Tao Rong Mei, running down a back street as the sun set on the city. She had escaped, for now.