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Human Rights Watch warns of growing threat of enforced disappearances

(Human Rights Watch) - Hong Kong, November 10, 2011 - 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.

Under international law, a state commits an enforced disappearance when its agents take a person into custody and then deny holding the person or fail to disclose the person's whereabouts. Family members and legal representatives are not informed of the person's whereabouts, well-being, or legal status. "Disappeared" people are often at high risk of torture, a risk even greater when they are detained outside of formal detention facilities such as prisons and police stations.

"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."

In November 2009, Human Rights Watch exposed in detail the use of enforced disappearance by government officials and their agents in confining thousands of petitioners - citizens from the rural countryside seeking legal redress in Beijing and other cities - in unlawful secret detention facilities known as "black jails." The detainees are routinely subjected to physical and psychological abuse, including beatings, sexual violence, food and sleep denial, and extortion. Yet two years later, black jails continue to operate in Beijing and other major Chinese cities.

Shortly after the November 12, 2009 release of HRW's report "'An Alleyway in Hell': China's Abusive 'Black Jails,'" the Chinese weekly newsmagazine, Outlook, produced by China's official Xinhua News Agency, ended the Chinese government's routine denial of the existence of black jails by publishing an article that echoed the Human Rights Watch findings. The Outlook article urged the Chinese government to put an end to black jails on the grounds that such an illegal system "damages the legitimate rights of petitioners and seriously damages the government's image." Two months later, the Chinese government ordered the closure of local government "liaison offices" in Beijing that have often been used as black jail sites.

Despite that expression of support by elements within the Chinese government to end black jail-related abuses, the government has failed to stop the practice, Human Rights Watch said.

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