08/29/2011, 00.00
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China to legalise seizing and holding dissidents

Plans to overhaul the criminal code would allow the authorities to hold “suspects” in secret places for six months without informing anyone, a practice already de facto in place. Experts warn that it would increase the risk of torture. On Sina’s weibo, anyone spreading “false” news will be blocked.
Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Police will be able to hold and detain suspects for months over matters involving national security, terrorism or corruption, this according to proposals currently before the National people’s Congress. Changes would also modify the practice of ‘residential surveillance’. However, major Chinese media have slammed the proposed amendments because they would deprive ordinary Chinese of the right to inform their lawyers or relatives.

Under the new changes, police would be allowed to hold suspects for up to six months and prevent them from having contact with other people if the latter could “hinder their inquiries”. However, police would to receive the permission of a prosecutor or the public security agency.

Earlier this year, China was criticised for the many “disappearances” of human rights activists and dissidents, seized by police without formal accusations or without informing anyone, and held in secret for months. Prominent artist Ai Weiwei was released in June after he disappeared three months before. Eventually, he was charged with tax evasion, a crime not covered under national security.

Others, like lawyer Gao Zhisheng, have disappeared for years without the authorities informing the public, or even relatives, except for messages that he is doing well.

Chinese law authorises six-month house arrest, but the suspect must be formally charged. Under the proposed amendment, he can be taken to an undisclosed location other than a prison or a police station.

The proposed changes would allow police "to basically carry out legally enforced disappearances, keeping people up to six months without any need to notify anyone,” said Human Rights Watch senior Asia researcher Nicholas Bequelin. “If you are taking somebody elsewhere than a lawfully supervised place of detention without notice, it greatly increases the risk of torture," he added.

Meanwhile, Sina’s weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, warned its 200 million members that anyone who spreads rumours would have their accounts suspended for one month. Two bloggers who complained about corruption saw their accounts suspended.

Many users expressed outrage, complaining about the new policy right away. Some are concerned that it would increase censorship and stop information the government might find offensive. The speed with which information spreads online is already a cause of concern for the authorities, which are hard pressed to keep up with it. At the same time, “How does Weibo know what’s true or not?” one user wrote.

For others, this kind of action is the thin edge of the wedge. In recent days, the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official newspaper, appeared to suggest that further restrictions were in the works. In a full-page article, it wrote about the “political mission” to control microblogs and other new forms of media.

But all this is nothing new. For years, Beijing has banned media coverage of disasters unless it is by official media. The 23 July railway accident in Wenzhou, which hit microblogging sites right away, is a case in point.

Increasingly, people also post stories about cases of injustice, hoping that online noise might force the authorities to conduct investigations.

However, the authorities have tended to crack down instead. For example, since 2009, they have blocked Twitter and Facebook.

Similarly, the operator of China’s other major microblog, Tencent, received a visit on 19 July from a Politburo member, Zhou Yongkang, who oversees public security. In a speech to its employees, he called for “greater self-discipline” to ensure that the internet promoted social harmony.
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