An undated handout photo showing the inside of a detention centre in Beijing's Jiujing village. Handout photo by Tianwang Human Rights Centre.
A notorious Beijing detention centre known to illegally hold petitioners released thousands of prisoners on Tuesday, according to a source and media reports.
Many activists view the release as a signal from China’s new leadership to further crack down on the so-called “black jails”, which detain people who come to Beijing to petition the central government for injustices they have suffered and their local governments and law enforcement weren't able to resolve.
This came days after the Beijing Youth Daily reported that a local court had convicted 10 people of illegally detaining petitioners from another city, and sentenced them to jail terms of up to 18 months. The paper has since withdrawn the story, and other media outlets reported that the case was still under trial.
Petitioners who don’t trust local authorities and seek justice in Beijing are often viewed as an embarrassment by provincial governments. In many cases, they are rounded up by thugs hired by provincial authorities, held in illegal jails, or sent home.
The news of the release was first reported online by Chengdu-based Tianwang Human Rights Centre , which said it was informed by a petitioner who had been set free.
Shen Zhihua, a native of eastern Zhejiang province, told the Post in a phone interview that she petitioned in front of state television CCTV on Tuesday morning. The police arrested her and sent her to a detention centre in Beijing’s Jiujing village. She was freed about 7.30pm yesterday evening.
“I estimated the number to be 70,000,” she said, referring to the number of fellow prisoners released last night.
Tianwang Human Rights Centre, run by veteran activist Huang Qi, quoted a Zhejiang petitioner and eyewitness as saying that the number of prisoners released could be 40,000 to 50,000.
“It was so crowded when we were walking out that my mobile phone was knocked out of my hand,” he said.
Beijing authorities haven’t released any official statement regarding the releases.
Shen Zhihua said prisoners at the jail were divided by province. She said the “Zhejiang room”, where she was kept, seemed to hold fewer people than many other rooms.
Shen said the black jail might have the capacity to hold 70,000 to 80,000 people, according to her observations.
Huang Qi said it was not clear whether the jail released all of its petitioners.
On Tuesday, which is the annual "Law Promotion Day" as designated by the Chinese government, experts and citizens discussed renaming it to "Constitution Day" to raise awareness about the nation’s constitution, which was implemented on December 4, 1982.
In a speech at the Great Hall of the People that marked the 30th anniversary of the constitution, newly appointed leader Xi Jinping yesterday pledged to revamp the working style of senior officials and uphold the rule of law.