Sep 06, 2011

Rights Activists’ Voices Grow in Tandem with Dissident Disappearances

The number of disappearances of vocal political activists in China has soared in 2011, leaving international observers concerned that proposed improvements to the superpower's legal code are limited in scope and will not affect actual change.

Below is an article published by The New York Times:

Last Jan. 27 [2010], an Inner Mongolian rights activist, Govruud Huuchinhuu, suddenly vanished after leaving a hospital where she had undergone treatment for cancer. On Feb. 16 [2011], the Beijing human-rights lawyer Tang Jitian vanished after being forcibly taken away by police officers. On May 30 [2011], an ethnic Uighur, Ershidin Israel, vanished after being deported to China from Kazakhstan as a terrorism suspect. In the next two weeks, three other Uighurs vanished as well.

The Beijing artist and dissident Ai Weiwei, who vanished into police custody on April 3 [2011] and did not emerge until June 22 [2011], is but the most famous Chinese activist to suffer an “enforced disappearance,” as human rights officials call such episodes. Experts say 2011 has seen a sharp and worrisome increase inside China of a security tactic that a United Nations international convention has sought to outlaw.

Now China is answering complaints by rights activists that the disappearances of those and other Chinese are unlawful and potentially inhumane: It is rewriting the national criminal procedure code to make them legal.

The new proposal, drafted by a committee of the National People’s Congress, the nation’s quasi-legislature, is undergoing public review. It would amend the current code, which allows government authorities to place criminal suspects under house arrest for up to six months. The proposed revision would allow them to imprison in a secret location anyone who, under home surveillance, is found to hinder an investigation. Suspects’ families would have to be told of their disappearance within 24 hours — unless doing so would hinder the investigation of crimes involving national security or terrorism.

Critics described the proposed revision as one of the most explicit backward steps in legal protections for people who offend the Chinese authorities since the country began moving toward the semblance of a Western-style legal system three decades ago. It would give security officials wide leeway to “disappear” dissidents and other activists without telling anyone — in other words, it would legalize Chinese officials’ current practices.

The proposal is part of a larger revision of the criminal procedural code that has in other respects won praise from some legal experts, because it would give many ordinary criminal suspects new legal protections and rein in the ability of the authorities to commit abuses.

For example, the proposed text, which has just been published, appears to bar the use of evidence obtained by torture. It would give most criminal suspects an unqualified right to see a lawyer, and would extend requirements that witnesses actually appear at trials to give testimony.

While these are basic tenets of criminal procedure elsewhere, they are potentially groundbreaking advances in China, where the court system is not an independent branch of government, but rather answers to the Communist Party, whose overriding concern is maintaining state power.

It remains to be seen whether the revisions, if they are enacted, will be implemented as written. Some analysts have expressed skepticism that a ban on evidence obtained by torture could be effective, for example, because lawyers do not yet have the right to be present at interrogations, when most torture occurs.

“The balance between using the law to protect society and using the law to protect individual rights is still heavily weighted on the side of protecting society,” said Joshua Rosenzweig, an independent human rights analyst based in Hong Kong and a leading expert on China’s criminal procedure. “And, one could more cynically say, on the side of protecting the party.”

If the past is any indication, the proposed revisions concerning forced disappearances are likely to affect a relatively small number of people, mostly dissidents and other thorns in the state’s side. But their narrow impact does not reduce their significance, Mr. Rosenzweig argued.

Enforced disappearances are widely regarded as human-rights abuses because they deny suspects legal protections, needlessly subject relatives of the disappeared to mental strain and generally increase the chances that unsupervised officials who hold captives in undisclosed locations will engage in torture. Liu Xiaoyuan, a prominent defense lawyer known for his involvement in controversial cases, called the proposed revision “just scary.”

“It literally gives the police a ticket to free themselves from any form of supervision,” he said. “The criminal law should protect citizens’ rights and restrict the power of the authorities. The new revision does exactly the opposite.”

Caixin, an intrepid investigative business magazine, called the provision a “grab-bag justification that would lead to investigative organs being able to decide as they please whether or not to inform family members, and to secret detentions running rampant.”

The proposal has not been approved, and could still change, although most experts consider that highly unlikely. Already, it has been the object of vigorous public criticism on some of the nation’s major microblogs; one post charged that it had “pushed the Chinese people’s sense of insecurity to a new height.” Another post said, “The new criminal law should be called ‘special people-controlling regulations for chaotic times.’ ”

Some analysts said they saw progress of a sort in the criticism. “Chinese citizens today no longer take it as a matter of course that the government has a God-given right to draw up any law it pleases,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who is based in Hong Kong.

In June, a United Nations working group on enforced disappearances expressed growing concern about the rise in such cases inside China, calling them “the continuation of a disturbing trend in the suppression of dissidents.”

“There can never be an excuse to disappear people, especially when those persons are peacefully expressing their dissent with the government of their country,” the group said in a written statement.

Two United Nations conventions, one enacted in 1976 and the other last December, commit member nations to refrain from making their citizens disappear in this way and to protect their legal rights. China has pledged to ratify both conventions, but has yet to do so. Nor has the United States ratified the 2010 convention, which explicitly prohibits enforced disappearances.

Like Mr. Ai, many of China’s disappeared eventually resurface, some showing signs of having undergone arduous treatment while in captivity. Others have vanished without explanation for extended periods, including the Nobel Prize winning writer and dissident Liu Xiaobo, who vanished for six months in 2008 and 2009.

And some do not return at all, like the prominent human-rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who has not been heard from since he disappeared in April 2010. A handful have been missing for far longer.