By Chris Buckley
BEIJING (Reuters) - China's parliament unveiled legislation on Thursday solidifying police powers to hold dissidents in secret criminal detention, prompting an outcry from artist Ai Weiwei and rights advocates caught in a surge of clandestine detentions last year.
Others said, however, the ruling Communist Party had retreated from the most draconian part of new rules for another kind of secretive detention, called "residential surveillance", which were proposed last year.
Police powers to hold suspects facing subversion and other state security charges are set out in revisions to China's Criminal Procedure Law sent to the annual parliament, the National People's Congress, for approval.
"Detainees' families should be notified within 24 hours, except when impossible, or when they are involved in crimes concerning state security or terrorism, and notification could obstruct investigations," the government said in a provision on detention in legal amendments issued to delegates and reporters.
The secret detention powers drew criticism of the Communist Party's sweeping controls to stifle dissent. The party-controlled parliament more or less automatically approves legislation proposed by the government.
"I think this shows the present political mentality of lack of confidence and of fear," said Ai Weiwei, an internationally renowned artist who was secretively detained last year, when asked about the amendments concerning secret criminal detention.
"This is a massive threat to the judicial system and to citizens' security," said Ai, who became the most prominent face among hundreds held in the crackdown on dissent. He was eventually released, fined for tax charges he has challenged as unfounded.
In China, "state security crimes" include subversion and other broadly defined charges often used to punish dissidents who challenge the Communist Party. Terrorism accusations have been leveled against Tibetan and Uighur people in western China accused of using violence to pursue independence.
"Our country is now in a period of social transformation and pronounced conflicts, and crime cases continue at a high level and serious violence crime is increasing," Wang Zhaoguo, a senior legislator, said in an speech about the legal changes.
Police and prosecutors already exercise broad powers to detain people with little explanation, and party-controlled courts rarely challenge how the powers are used. Critics have said the secretive detention amendments add a veneer of authority to arbitrary powers, risking more abuses.
But right advocates also said authorities had backed down on another kind of detention, "residential surveillance", which has been used to keep dissidents in hotels or other secret locations away from families, lawyers and the public eye.
The revised law says when suspects or defendants are "involved in crimes concerning state security, terrorism or especially serious corruption and notification of where they are residing could obstruct investigations", they can he held in "residential surveillance" outside their homes or state-run detention centers. But families must be told within 24 hours.
WARY EYE ON ARAB WORLD
An earlier draft of the law published last year drew an outcry from lawyers and rights advocates for authorizing secret "residential surveillance" for dissidents, terror suspects and others without telling their families.
The uproar apparently forced the government to scale back the scope for such "residential" detention, although police still hold sweeping powers, said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group.
"I think that they've been defeated and that the legal reformers' views have prevailed, and they've rolled back this attempt by the police to considerably expand their power," said Bequelin, who has closely followed the debate about the law.
"This provision would have been extremely problematic and a great departure from international norms," he said in a telephone interview.
Alarmed that anti-authoritarian uprisings across the Arab world could inspire challenges to Communist Party rule, Beijing last year held dozens of prominent activists for weeks and months in secretive detention, and some have later spoken of harsh physical abuses and traumatic treatment.
China will increase spending on police, militia and other domestic security arms by 11.5 percent to $111 billion this year, according to budget goals that will be approved by the annual parliament session.
"The authorities want legislation only for the sake of preserving stability, that is, restricting citizen's rights," said Jiang Tianyong, a Beijing human rights lawyer held in secret last year. He also criticized the secret detention powers enshrined in the new legislation.
Other parts of the criminal procedure changes have been welcomed by lawyers, who have said they could improve access to suspects and defendants and also restrict the use of evidence obtained through torture and other illegal means.
Pu Zhiqiang, a lawyer who takes on contentious cases involving dissidents and media freedom, said "the real issue is not what the laws say, but how they are enforced".
"These revisions do have a big impact on my work, but even if they pass, Chinese laws aren't really applied," he said.
"The pattern is that the Communist Party can play by rules when there aren't special circumstances, but whenever there are special circumstances, it doesn't have to play by them," he added, referring to periods of political tension.
(Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Robert Birsel)