Activists said Friday that proposed changes to Chinese criminal law would effectively legitimize the disappearances used against high-profile dissidents.
The official Legal Daily newspaper reported this week that amendments proposed to China's criminal procedure law would allow police to detain suspects outside of detention centers when they are part of major state security and corruption cases.
Joshua Rosenzweig, an independent human rights researcher in Hong Kong, said the move would make legal such disappearances as that of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. Liu was taken away to a secret location for six months before being formally arrested in June 2009.
In a more recent case, the prominent artist Ai Weiwei was held somewhere outside Beijing for three months. Ai's detention made him the most famous victim of a sweeping crackdown against dissent in China that began in February. Dozens of Chinese lawyers, activists, and others disappeared or were detained by authorities in the clampdown.
The proposed legal changes would apply to China's law on "residential surveillance" _ a measure that's intended as a form of house arrest to be used when formal detention is deemed unsuitable. It cites as examples suspects who suffer from serious illnesses, are unable to care for themselves, are pregnant or breast-feeding.
But police may hold state security, terror and corruption suspects outside of their homes if keeping them at home would "obstruct the investigation," the report said. To do so, police would have to obtain permission from a higher level public security agency or prosecutor, it said.
It added that in such situations, police would not be required to notify the families of state security and terror suspects if doing so would obstruct investigations.
"They've given themselves this extra power. The police are legitimizing what they've already been doing and what they've been criticized for doing," said Rosenzweig, whose research focuses on Chinese criminal justice and political detainees.
"If they do this, then the next time you've got a Liu Xiaobo and Ai Weiwei who basically disappears like this, you can say: 'We're handling the case according to law,'" he said. The current law allows for a person to be held under "residential surveillance" for up to six months.
Beijing-based attorney Liu Xiaoyuan said the proposed change would leave suspects in such situations with less legal protections than if they were being held in detention centers where there is a level of monitoring.
"This is a step backward for Chinese law," Liu said. "I think they need to do this because when it comes to state security crimes, investigators usually don't have enough evidence and want to hold the person for a longer time but the detention center's procedures make it less convenient."