China's authoritarian government is restricting the police's power to secretly detain people, at least on paper, announcing stricter revisions to a key criminal law Thursday after a wave of public complaints.
Scholars welcomed the changes, saying they will offer better protection of suspects and reflect increasing awareness in China of the need for stronger detainee rights.
The formal introduction of the revised criminal procedure law to the national legislature ends a half-year of speculation and debate about whether the government would give police the legal authority to do something they have long done extra-legally: disappear people for months at a time without telling their families.
Police have increasingly used the tactic over the past year to detain activist lawyers, democracy campaigners, and even internationally acclaimed artist Ai Weiwei, amid government worries about whether the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring might spread to China.
The congress, which is controlled by the ruling Communist Party, is all but certain to approve the changes when the session ends Wednesday.
While legal reformers have cheered the revisions, enforcement of most laws in China is spotty. Police and prosecutors have routinely ignored current legal provisions protecting suspects' rights and have frequently used charges of endangering national security against dissidents.
There are two relevant articles in the law that deal with notifying families, one in regular criminal cases and the other involving a type of detention known as residential surveillance. Both have been revised to better protect detainees, though they don't do away completely with secret detentions, scholars said.
In the case of residential surveillance, a sort of house arrest that can happen in a fixed location that is chosen by police, a detainee's family must be notified within 24 hours unless they can't be reached. Dissidents detained under this kind of residential surveillance are often put in suburban hotels or apartments, and many have reported being tortured by police.
"It's not a picnic; it's not fun," said Joshua Rosenzweig, a human rights researcher based in Hong Kong who has documented detainee accounts of residential surveillance. "It involves serious psychological and physical abuse. This is something that is facilitated by police having so much control."
Rosenzweig said abuses include being confined to bed for days at a time and holding fixed positions for hours, as well as constant police surveillance including when a detainee is using the toilet or in the shower.
"None of that is necessarily going to change because police are required to notify the family," he said. "What goes on in those so-called designated locations and how much regulation of police behavior in those places can take place is still an open question and an important question."
Still, Rosenzweig and others said the latest version of the law marks a step forward for Chinese legal reform.
Chen Guangzhong, an 82-year-old tenured professor at the Chinese University of Political Science and Law in Beijing who was critical of earlier drafts of the legislation, said the revised law marked a necessary curtailment of police powers.
"This change is significant," he said. "It means China is making further effort in improving human rights, democracy and the rule of law. ... In the past, judicial authorities had too much power."
In the case of regular criminal detention in jail or prison, families must also be notified _ unless the cases involve the crimes of endangering national security or terrorism and authorities believe notifying the family would impede the investigation. Many dissidents are accused of threatening security, so the exception could still allow police to hold them secretly _ but they would at least be in a formal detention facility, where abuses might be less likely to occur.
In introducing the bill, legislative vice chairman Wang Zhaoguo said the revisions are meant to address lack of notification requirements in the current law.
"Taking full account of the need for punishing crimes and protecting the rights of criminal suspects and defendants, it is necessary to strictly limit exceptions to the provision of notifying family members after a coercive measure is adopted," Wang told the National People's Congress, which is in the middle of its 10-day annual session.
The new draft is better for detainees than the existing law, last revised in 1996, and better also than a proposed draft released in August that drew heated criticisms from the legal community and prompted tens of thousands of people to list their complaints online. Those proposals allowed residential surveillance without any notification for cases involving national security and terrorism. Activist Hu Jia, himself living under a form of house arrest, dubbed it the "KGB clause."
Rosenzweig said that public feedback was very important to realizing the final draft and noted that Chinese in general were becoming more aware of the need to protect the rights of detainees.
"They see these examples of miscarriages of justice where people have been sent to prison or sent to their execution on the basis of coerced confessions, so they know this is a problem and moreover there is a growing awareness that following procedure has something to do with protecting people from those outcomes," he said.
Aside from the changes on notification, many other amendments to the criminal procedure law also attempt to improve treatment of suspects, promising more timely access to lawyers and raising standards for use of illegally gathered evidence, among others.