A recent one-day trial in the northern province of Hebei involving China’s “black jail” industry came about because people who say they were illegally detained did some detective work to find their former prison and then took the matter to the media and police.

The one-day trial was held on April 2 in Gu’an county, in the province that surrounds the capital, Beijing. More than ten people testified at the trial that they were held in a village house about eighty kilometers (approximately fifty miles) from Beijing for up to twenty days by people hired by local government officials to prevent them from airing grievances in the capital.

The witnesses were from Heilongjiang province in the northeast, Shandong province in the east, and other areas.

The three people on trial were accused of being security guards at a “black jail.” They each face one charge of illegal detention, which carries a maximum sentence of ten years in prison. The court is expected to announce its verdict at a later date.

The three say their boss was a man called Liu Donglin, who police are still looking for.

China’s “black jails” are linked to the system for people to take complaints about local governments, courts, and police to higher authorities like the State Bureau for Letters and Calls in the hopes of getting redress. The country’s officials are eager to prevent those complaints from being made, in part because they are evaluated by the number of grievances filed against them.

This means officials go so far as to hire people to kidnap petitioners in the capital, hold them for a period at “black jails” intended to scare them out of ever complaining again, and then see that they return home.

At the time they were detained in Beijing, most of the witnesses in the Hebei trial were in the capital to file complaints with the central government about their local governments. Some had submitted petitions in the past and just happened to be in the capital when they were stopped.

20 Million Yuan a Year Industry

In November 2012, Lu Xinghu, then forty, traveled from Heilongjiang to Beijing to petition. He said he suffered chronic injuries from a beating in 2011, but said police in Tieli City let his attacker escape punishment. He complained to his local government and was not satisfied with the results, so he headed for the capital.

On November 5, a policeman in Beijing learned that Lu was a petitioner and reported him to the office that Lu’s local government keeps in Beijing. Word got to police in Tieli, who traveled to Beijing and told Lu his attacker had been arrested.

They then handed him over to an agency they said would take him home. He was put in a van whose windows were covered in cloth and tape, he said, making it impossible to see where he was going. There were four guards and two other petitioners in the vehicle. The petitioners were told to hand over their cell phones.

The van traveled for a few hours and then stopped at an apartment building. Inside were more than twenty other people, including petitioners and guards. The apartment was apparently used to hold petitioners for a short period.

Lu Xinghu said one woman who was with him in the car hid a cell phone in a sock, but Liu Donglin (the man the guards say hired them) found it. Furious, he told the guards to strip the woman and her friend. The two were told to kneel, and Liu had his guards scold and beat the women. When Lu tried to intervene, he was also beaten. Lu said he passed out twice during the ordeal, and he remembers the guards threatening to throw him out a window.

Afterward, he was taken to a house in a nearby village, the place the witnesses in the trial referred to as the “black jail.” He spent the next eleven days there, during which time he and other detainees set about figuring out where they were and who was holding them.

The house had four rooms and each held as many as twenty people. Since every room had only two beds, most people had to sleep on the floor. The prisoners say they had cold steamed rolls and pickled cabbage for meals, but that guards could be bribed into getting better food.

The prisoners gathered bits of evidence about where they were and wrote it down on small pieces of paper. In one instance, a repairman came to the house and Cui Yaxian, a petitioner from the northeastern city of Harbin, wrote down the phone number on the back of the man’s work shirt. The prisoners also exchanged contact information so they would be able to find each other after their releases.

The detainees also spent some of their time chatting with Liu Donglin’s wife. She told them that officials back in Heilongjiang were willing to pay a little extra for their “black jail” services because November 2012 was a sensitive time in China.

The Communist Party was holding its Eighteenth National Congress in the capital. The event saw Xi Jinping installed as the Party’s General Secretary, and he and six other men as members of the Politburo Standing Committee that now rules the country. For this reason, officials wanted to make sure there were no disturbances in Beijing.

This meant officials in Heilongjiang were willing to pay operators of “black jails” 500 yuan instead of the usual 300 yuan per detainee per day, Liu’s wife said. The price increase was the same as that during the Olympic Games in 2008, an event that China’s leaders also wanted to make sure went off without a hitch.

Sixty percent of the money paid by officials in Heilongjiang had to be handed over to officials at the representative offices in the capital, Liu’s wife said. Despite that, she said, business was good. She and her husband managed six “black jails” in Beijing and Hebei, and they made more than 20 million yuan a year.

She tried to make sure the detainees were intimidated, Lu said. “Our relations with the government are excellent,” she told them. “You can sue us all you want. We’re not scared of you.”

But not everyone in the underground business got rich. Wang Guangyuan, one of the guards who stood trial, told the court he earned just 100 yuan per day.

Detective Work

Lu and the others held in the village house were sent home in late November and started to put together the pieces of information they had gathered.

On December 15, 2012, twelve of the people who said they had been detained traveled to the offices of a newspaper in Beijing to tell their story. More than twenty security personnel from Heilongjiang tried to stop them, but the newspaper’s security guards stepped in so that a reporter could lead the twelve inside.

The reporter interviewed them, and afterward the former petitioners called Beijing police, who in the past have frowned on the “black jail” industry because it means people are being kidnapped in their jurisdiction. The Beijing police listened to their story, then sent them to the train station so they could go home.

A month later Cui, the detainee who wrote down the repairman’s phone number, and six others followed all the evidence they had gathered to Duliu Village in Gu’an county, Hebei. They found the village house they were held in, and immediately filed a police report.

During the trial, the witnesses have repeatedly said they feel their detentions were a form of government action and that local government officials should also be charged. However, the court has said that cannot happen until Liu, the fugitive accused of hiring the guards, is found.

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