04/14/2009, 00.00
CHINA
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Beijing will ban torture and abuse of prisoners within two years

The first plan for the introduction of human rights in China has been published. The main objective is protection of prisoners, but also the fight against unemployment. Many experts are in favor, although they are skeptical about the actual implementation. But others observe that it is important merely to admit that there are fundamental human rights that go beyond subsistence.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) - China's State Council yesterday published the first "National Human Rights Action Plan," outlining goals for the next two years. In the first place is better physical and psychological protection for arrestees and prisoners. Beyond the criticisms for the many "omissions," the plan could constitute an epochal shift in Chinese politics.

The plan promises to prohibit confessions extracted through torture, providing for a "physical examination" before and after the interrogation, in addition to forbidding physical punishment, insults, and other abuse of prisoners. Moreover, it affirms the right of prisoners to present written protests or to speak with the public ministry to report abuses. The right to meet with and talk to a lawyer is also confirmed, together with the attorney's right to conduct the defense in the best way possible.

The plan is intended to reassure public opinion in the country, which is in a state of alarm because since February 8 there have been at least 6 "suspicious" prisoner deaths. In one case, prison authorities tried to cover up a murder committed by another prisoner. The latest episode is the death of Chen Hongqiang on April 11 in the prison of Fuzhou (Fujian). Chen was serving a 10-day sentence for drug use.

The plan also aims to raise incomes, create 180 million new jobs, build houses to be sold at affordable prices, and better protect the economic rights of the population.

Human rights groups criticize the document for its many omissions, including in regard to the widespread use of "administrative detention" and reeducation-through-labor camps, and the "phantom" prisons where those who present petitions or threaten the interests of the authorities are held without charges. Some experts say that this is a maneuver aimed at mitigating domestic and international criticism of human rights abuses, in part because of the approaching 20th anniversary of the massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators on June 4, 1989, in Tiananmen Square.

Joshua Rosenzweig, director of the Hong Kong-based human rights group Dui Hua Foundation, calls this "an important step" toward better defense of rights, although he cautions that without concrete changes for the respect of rights, China will remain at the level of good intentions.

But many observe that Beijing has always said that human rights as they are understood in the West are not applicable to the different reality in China, and in its preamble the plan says that the priority is "the protection of the people's rights to subsistence" (food, housing, clothing): for this reason, stating that it is necessary to protect the rights of prisoners indicates a significant change of viewpoint. The news agency Xinhua observes that "the government admitted that ‘China has a long road ahead in its efforts to improve its human rights situation."

The plan also promises to allow journalists and websites greater freedom in gathering news "in respect of the law." And also to "raise the level of ensuring people's civil and political rights" through greater democracy and respect for the law, but without specifying how this will be done.

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