Increased rate of political arrests in China is troubling

Joshua Rosenzweig [Manager, Research & Programs, The Dui Hua Foundation]: "The recently-published statistics for 2006 on political arrests in China are especially troubling, as they indicate the reversal of a three-year trend from 2003 to 2005 in which such arrests declined substantially. It is not entirely obvious why political arrests doubled in 2006 compared to the previous year, but it fits with what many have been observing over the past two years: that the Chinese Communist Party-led government is taking firm, repressive measures to manage perceived threats to social and political stability. In part, these repressive measures seem designed to squelch any possibility of broad-based unrest in advance of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The category of crime known as "endangering state security" (ESS, Art. 102—113 of the Chinese Criminal Law) involves a set of broadly defined prohibitions aimed at protecting the "security and interests of the [Chinese] state." Among the most common charges from this category, the laws against "subversion" and "splittism" (including the incitement thereof) have no purpose other than the repression of political dissent. The law against leaking state secrets outside of China has been used to silence journalists, rights-defending lawyers, advocates of religious freedom, and those who champion the rights of ethnic minorities such as the Uyghurs and Tibetans to seek greater autonomy or even independence.

According to Chinese criminal procedure laws, decision on "formal arrest" is made by prosecutors after considering whether police have gathered enough evidence to justify detaining a suspect beyond the initial 30-day period of criminal detention. The decision to approve arrest has serious implications for a defendant, since about 90 percent of those who are arrested for ESS crimes in China are subsequently prosecuted and about 98 percent of cases that reach trial end in conviction and punishment.

Moreover, because of their political sensitivity, many ESS cases are officially classified as state secrets, which carries significant consequences for the way those cases are handled under China's criminal procedure regulations. Defendants in ESS cases that are deemed to be state secrets are typically prevented from meeting with defense attorneys until the case has been submitted to prosecutors—a period that, under some circumstances, can last as many as six or more months. Trials in classified ESS cases are also entirely closed to the public, except for the final delivery of the verdict.

The number of individuals detained for political reasons is actually much larger than the annual statistics show. Aside from a relatively small number of individuals detained on ESS charges but subsequently released without formal arrest, there recently appears to have been an increase in the use of non-ESS charges such as "illegal business activity" or fraud to punish individuals clearly targeted for their political activity. Illegal forms of house arrest for political activists have also been on the increase, individuals are placed in police-run psychiatric hospitals for treatment of their political "fixations," and the controversial administrative detention procedure known as "reeducation through labor," in which individuals may be deprived of their liberty for up to four years without trial, remains in common use. And the numbers incarcerated rise well into the thousands if one includes those detained for other forms of oppositional activity, such as participation in banned organizations or "mass incident" protests against corruption, land seizures, environmental damage, and other injustices.

These are likely to be some of the last official statistics by which we can measure China's commitment to human rights and political freedom in advance of the 2008 Olympics. The numbers do not inspire much confidence in Beijing's progress on this front."

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