China’s new law sanctions covert detentions

New York, March 14, 2012–China has approved revisions to its criminal code that grants police broad powers to hold journalists and others who discuss sensitive national issues without charge in secret detention for up to six months, according to news reports.

Members of the National People’s Congress adopted an amendment to the Criminal Procedure Law on March 8 that allows suspects deemed a threat to national security to be held in undisclosed locations, news reports said. Under the new law, police are required to inform the families of suspects that they are in detention, but do not have to say where or why the suspects are being held, news reports said. Families of detainees are habitually advised not to speak to the foreign press, according to CPJ research.

Chinese state media hailed the law as progress for human rights, but CPJ research shows that the law attempts to codify the existing practice of seizing people who discuss sensitive issues and holding them in secret. Disappearances were particularly frequent in 2011 as security tightened after online calls for political reform.

“The Chinese Communist Party has a long history of using antistate laws to imprison independent journalists,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “But this legislation goes even further, legitimizing secret detentions without accountability.”

CPJ research shows that police and prosecutors frequently flout procedure when arresting journalists, particularly in regions with ethnic tension. Families of Tibetan and Uighur journalists are often completely unaware of the journalists’ whereabouts for the duration of their trial, the sentence, and even after their anticipated release.   

At least 27 journalists were in Chinese prisons when CPJ conducted its annual census on December 1. More than half were from minority groups.