China activist speaks out from inside 'black jail'

AP News
Posted: Dec 05, 2009 10:44 AM

A Chinese activist who has spoken out about the country's "black jails" said Saturday that he was being held against his will in one of the unofficial detention centers used to discourage people from complaining to the central government.

Zheng Dajing stood behind a locked metal door, whose screen window was covered with semi-opaque plastic, and answered questions from The Associated Press. The location was a two-story building in the dim courtyard of an alleyside hotel in west Beijing. The stocky 48-year-old recited his wife's mobile phone number to confirm it was him.

"I have no idea when I can leave," he said.

China has denied the existence of "black jails," but a state-run magazine last month described the secret detention centers where petitioners _ citizens who come to Beijing with complaints about corruption in their home towns _ are held and sometimes beaten.

The report said officials are under pressure to shrink the number of petitioners from their localities to "zero" and pay people to detain those who come to Beijing before they can complain.

Zheng said he was detained Friday with "several thousand" other people marking China's annual "Legal Publicity Day" _ meant to promote awareness of China's legal system _ with numerous protests around the capital.

The China-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders reported Saturday that Zheng, from central Hubei province, was an organizer of the protests, but Zheng said he was merely standing near a Beijing railway station observing them when he was taken away.

"We were just standing there watching," he said. "They must have detained thousands of people" around the city.

The rights group's statement said it had no idea about the number of people detained Friday and there were no other reports of mass detentions.

A man answering the phone at a police station in Beijing's Fengtai district, the area where the hotel is located, said he could not deal with media questions and had no way of checking Zheng's case.

Zheng was being watched by a guard inside the locked room, who protested loudly at first to the interview but then walked away. Other guards earlier Saturday stopped Zheng's wife from getting inside to see him.

Zheng said he and others were taken to Majialou, which Chinese Human Rights Defenders described as "a central 'black jail' for petitioners," for processing before being taken to his current location, a dingy guesthouse with "Siyuan Hotel" spelled out in neon lights.

Zheng said he and three other people were being held there. A small tear in the plastic covering the door's screen showed a flourescent-lit room with a water cooler.

At first, the guard behind the locked door said Zheng was not there, but Zheng then came to the door.

He said the guards hit his wife and pulled her hair when she tried to get inside to speak with him. Zheng's wife, Cao Xiangzhen, said the same earlier Saturday.

Zheng, who has spoken with foreign media in the past about being held in "black jails," said he himself had not been beaten.

Last month's surprisingly open report in the state-run magazine Outlook said officials pay "black jail" operators 100 yuan ($15) to 200 yuan ($30) per day for each petitioner held captive.

A man who came out of the Siyuan Hotel and ended the interview with Zheng said, "This is police business. Take it up with the police." He would not give his name and said he worked with the hotel.

"No comment," he said when asked about "black jails" and Zheng. "Get out."