Last July, Wu Chandi, Zhu Yumei, Liu Juhua were told by the “Reeducation Through Labor” committee in Changzhou, Jiangsu province that they had been sentenced to a year of education through labor, because they failed to buy tickets for the number 14 bus on a trip to Beijing during 2009. The cost of a bus ticket in the city is 1RMB ($0.15)
According to a report by Chinese newspaper Xinkuai Bao, The women had traveled to Beijing in 2009 to petition the central government. China’s petitioning system gives citizens the ability to visit a central government office to lodge complaints about corruption and injustice.
While petitioning in the city during June 2009, four women from Changzhou took Beijing’s number 14 bus, which travels to the central government’s leadership compound, Zhongnanhai. When the women boarded the bus, the driver refused to drive any further, accusing the women of failing to buy a ticket. The bus driver then called the police. Ninety days later the driver identified the women from photographs provided by the Beijing police.
A year after the incident, Wu Chandi, one of the women on the bus, was taking an evening walk near her home, when she found herself surrounded by plainclothes policemen. She called the police for help, but was placed in “administrative detention” for 9 days.
After being released from detention, Wu received a notice from her local “Reducation Through Labor” committee stating that she had been sentenced to a year of labor. Two other women involved in the bus incident received the same sentence.
The women continued to assert that they had bought tickets for the journey. Shen Gui, a law professor at Beijing University said that even if they hadn’t payed for the tickets, such a heavy punishment was “unsuited” to the crime.
The case has aroused suspicion that the local government in Changzhou overstepped its legal powers in order to halt the efforts of the petitioners. Legal experts have stated that the case does not fall under the jurisdiction of authorities in Changzhou. Because police in Beijing did not file any case against the women, it was impossible for them to transfer the case to authorities in Changzhou. Yu Yulai, of the Chinese law association said the case against the women was “ridiculous” and a “clear abuse of power.”
Local government efforts to stop petitioners reaching Beijing, or punishing them when they return home, are well known. Local government officials risk punishment if cases of corruption come to he attention of the central government through the petitioning system. Efforts to stop petitioners include the use of “Black Jails”, or secret detention centers paid for by local governments. Last week a spokesperson from the Beijing police admitted that “Black Jails” still exist in the capital.
Sun Hongkang, another woman accused of not buying a ticket, didn’t receive any punishment. “It’s because I didn’t return to Beijing to petition again,” she said.
According to police records, the driver called the police because the women were petitioners, not because they failed to buy bus tickets. The drivers’ record of the trip also reports that he informed the police that the two were petitioners, and did not report any failure to buy tickets. Legal expert Li Xiaolin said that that the driver “clearly discriminated” against the petitioners.
The Xinkuai Bao article has been reprinted widely by Chinese news websites, including the website of state-owned media company CCTV.
Wang Wenjie, a publicity official with the municipal public security bureau, told China Daily on Tuesday that police in Changping caught several suspects who were running the illegal detention house after a released petitioner gave them information.
Police also rescued several petitioners detained there, Wang said.
The police officer, however, did not reveal how many suspects were detained or if the black jail, which was located somewhere in Lingshang village, Beiqijia township of Changping, had been closed down.
"All I can say is that the black jail is one individual case," Wang said, indicating there is no other illegal detention house in the city.
The issue of black jails shocked the nation last year when media reported that a local government had paid security companies to intercept and lock up - normally by force - "deviant petitioners".
Under the law, people from all over the country with grievances against governments can come to the capital to present their case to the State Bureau for Letters and Calls.
In September, Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau detained Zhang Jun, chairman of Anyuanding Security Service Company, and Zhang Jie, general manager of the company, for "illegally detaining people and illegal business operations".
The company started business in 2004. In 2008 it began to help liaison officers from local governments in Beijing who wanted to stop people from petitioning, according to the police investigation.
China's latest version of Regulations on Letters and Visits does not define "deviant petitioners", but states if the letter-writer or visitor violates the laws or administrative regulations on processions and demonstrations, the public security body shall take necessary measures and impose an administrative penalty.
The Beijing News reported on Tuesday that information from a petitioner surnamed Zhou, who was released from the "black jail" in early July, led to the police operation.
Zhou, from Yancheng city, in East China's Jiangsu province, said as soon as she walked out of a government office in Beijing on July 4, several men blocked her way and dragged her into a minivan.
The men confiscated Zhou's mobile phone and drove her for an hour to a courtyard of three houses measuring about 60 square meters, the report said.
"There was no bed in my room. Elderly people and babies were sitting or lying on the ground," Zhou was quoted as saying. "It was hot, humid and airless."
She added that about 50 people from different places were detained in the courtyard with her. The houses were heavily guarded and it was "difficult to run away".
Zhou was released four days later for good behavior, but she said some people had been held there for months.
In last year's Anyuanding case, police took most "deviant petitioners" in Beijing to Majialou reception and rescue center, from where the petitioners were taken away by hired security personnel to black jails or sent home.
An owner of a grocery store near the Majialou center, surnamed Li, told China Daily she saw many petitioners being treated roughly.
"I once saw a petitioner pushed down from a truck. He almost had his leg run over," Li said.
Yu Jianrong, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the black jail case in Changping will not be the last one in Beijing.
"There is a chain of interests behind the control of petitioners," Yu said.
"The security company wants to make money from it, and the local government needs help from outside to maintain stability and fulfill their obligations."
Yu said only when the "system of maintaining social stability changes can the issue of black jails be eliminated completely".