Human Rights Watch: Enforced Disappearances a Growing Threat

Proposed changes to China’s criminal procedure law would provide extrajudicial detentions with “a thicker veneer of legality”, according to Human Rights Watch:

Enforced disappearances by the Chinese government’s security agencies have soared as a means to silence perceived dissent, Human Rights Watch said today at a news conference in Hong Kong. The government has failed to address the growing problem and is instead attempting to effectively legalize that unlawful practice through a revision to the country’s Criminal Procedure Law, Human Rights Watch said ….

“Despite a few weak gestures of disapproval, the Chinese government has largely ignored or tacitly approved the security agencies’ proclivity for enforced disappearance and ‘black jails,’” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “That inaction has encouraged China’s security agencies to increasingly make enforced disappearances their tactic of choice. The proposed legal revisions are a clear indication of the government’s intentions ….”

“Chinese and international legal scholars have devoted years to trying to bring China’s laws and legal system in line with international standards, but the proposed revisions are an about face,” Richardson said. “The proof of the Chinese government’s commitment to the rule of law would be to end arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances, not to legalize them.”

Reuters describes The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s response and the proposals’ political context:

China’s Foreign Ministry said “the competent authorities of China have been soliciting the public’s views” on the proposed amendment.

“We are willing to listen to their views but some organizations have been viewing China with colored lenses,” ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters. “For such organizations, we will not comment on their behavior ….”

With President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao due to step aside for a new generation of leaders next year, the jockeying for power will likely see few liberal gestures, given the obsessive focus on preserving stability.

“There are very few people, particularly at senior levels of the government, that are in a mood to experiment or take risks or propose innovative new strategies for responding to dissent in a systematic way,” said Richardson.

Al Jazeera’s Melissa Chan notes the spectrum of measures being employed, including Gao Zhisheng’s disappearance, Chen Guangcheng’s house arrest and Ai Weiwei’s travel restrictions:

The proposed changes were also discussed in a recent report from the Committee to Support Chinese Lawyers, ‘Legal Advocacy and the 2011 Crackdown in China: Adversity, Repression, and Resilience‘ (PDF, pp. 1-2):

The proposed revision raises serious human rights questions and is especially alarming against the backdrop of escalating harassment, detentions, and surveillance targeting lawyers and activists in China in 2011. Between February 2011 and time of press, Chinese authorities have taken documented punitive actions against hundreds of people, the most drastic of which was the enforced disappearances of at least 24 people, as well as the criminal detention of at least 52 more; 11 of these have been formally arrested. Of those targeted in the 2011 crackdown, some of the harshest treatment was taken against a core group of 15 rights lawyers and legal activists, all of whom had previously been targeted by Chinese authorities for taking on cases deemed controversial or sensitive.

The 2011 crackdown exemplifies the range of extra-legal measures that have increasingly been used to disable rights lawyers and activists deemed to be threats (or at least nuisances) to Chinese authorities. The period also marks a dramatic escalation in the use of extra-legal measures: enforced disappearances occurred in multiple cities; lawyers were subject to forced relocations after their return; severephysical violence, harsh interrogation techniques and “re-education” measures were also reported.

These extra-legal measures are what the Chinese legal scholar Fu Hualing calls “extra-extra law” [法律外外秩序 falü waiwai zhixu]—informal, politically-centered policies characterized by a total lack of legality. The extra-legal measures are in direct opposition to China’s own written laws and regulations, yet continue to be widely used. The proposed revision to the CPL expanding detention powers would, if adopted, allow law enforcement enormous discretion in the application of the law, particularly in controversial or sensitive cases. This is especially problematic in light of the fact that the criminal justice system “affords no effective ways for lawyers to challenge self-serving, plainly illegitimate police interpretations and misapplications of the law.”