China tightens rules on secret detentions

Ai Weiwei

(AP) BEIJING - China's authoritarian government is restricting the police's power to secretly detain people, at least on paper, announcing stricter revisions to a key criminal law Thursday after a wave of public complaints.

The formal introduction of the revised criminal procedure law to the national legislature ends a half-year of speculation and debate about whether the government would give police the legal authority to do something they do extra-legally: disappear people for months at a time.

Police have increasingly used the tactic over the past year to detain activist lawyers, democracy campaigners, and even internationally acclaimed artist Ai Weiwei, amid government worries about whether the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring might spread to China.

Under the proposed revisions, authorities must notify families of people detained within 24 hours except if the families cannot be reached or unless notification would impede an investigation into cases of national security and terrorism.

In introducing the bill, legislative vice chairman Wang Zhaoguo said the revisions are meant to address lack of notification in the current law.

"Taking full account of the need for punishing crimes and protecting the rights of criminal suspects and defendants, it is necessary to strictly limit exceptions to the provision of notifying family members after a coercive measure is adopted," Wang told the National People's Congress, which is in the middle of its 10-day annual session.

The revisions are stricter than proposed changes announced in August that drew heated criticisms from the legal community and prompted tens of thousands of people to list their complaints online.

At issue were two provisions, one dealing with a type of house arrest and the other with detention in jails. The house arrest proposal still allows suspects in national security, terrorism and major corruption cases to be detained outside their homes, a loophole that currently is often used to hold dissidents in undisclosed locations.

Aside from the changes on notification, many other amendments to the criminal procedure law also attempt to improve treatment of suspects, promising more timely access to lawyers and raising standards for use of illegally gathered evidence, among others.

The congress, which is controlled by the ruling Communist Party, is all but certain to approve the changes when the session ends Wednesday.

While legal reformers have cheered the revisions, enforcement of most laws in China is spotty. Police and prosecutors have routinely ignored current legal provisions protecting suspects' rights and have frequently used charges of endangering national security against dissidents.