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China Steps up extra-judicial detentions targeting foreigners during Xi Jinping’s “new era”

China has increased unfamiliar method of extra-judicial imprisonment

China is increasing the use of an unfamiliar method of extra-judicial imprisonment that authorizes police to prohibit access to lawyers and cut suspects off from the outside world. A new research paper by Human rights group Safeguard says that thousands are being impacted by China’s growing authoritarian impulse.

Yang Hengjun and Cheng Lei are two Australians jailed for purported national security offences in Beijing and have been detained under "residential surveillance at a designation location" programme, also known as RSDL, as reported by Australian Broadcasting News.

The system was established in 2012 just days before Xi Jinping's rule as China's leader started. Human rights group Safeguard Defenders has published the most extensive account to date of state of affairs inside RSDL establishment, relying on the statements of many former detainees, including the founder of the group, Swedish activist Peter Dahlin.

Their corroborated accounts provide a bird’s eye view ranging from secret beatings and enforced medication to prolonged stretches of simulated boredom with guards observing every moment. Human rights lawyer Bao Longjun told the report authors that at night, two guards would watch her, even when she went to the toilet or brushed her teeth. One of them had a small book in his pocket which he would take out every 10 minutes and make notes. Her daily routine was completely regulated, except for the interrogations.

While decreed under Chinese legislation, RSDL is separate from recognised legal process for a detainee. Rather, there is a six-month period when investigators can confine suspects incommunicado at "black prisons", questioning them, collecting evidence and fabricating a case without needing to charge them or acquire a court's permission. In many noteworthy cases in current years, family members were kept in the dark about where their relatives were being imprisoned. Other former detainees have recounted being handcuffed, having exercise time restricted or having their food rations cut off as punishment for violation of the RSDL rules, which mostly force prisoners to sit in silence when they are not being interrogated.

In six-hour shifts, 24 hours a day, the guards would sit there and stare at Peter Dahlin, taking notes on little notepads. He was detained in early 2016 for 23 days before being expelled for running an illegal human rights NGO, as reported by The Wall Street Journal.

 The facility, some of which are hotels or police buildings, have differing conditions while others are specially designated prisons.

She was confined to remain within a cramped, red coloured square during the day and tortured by young [guard] girls, activist lawyer Wang Yu was quoted as saying in the report. She was arrested in late 2015 during a large-scale clamp down on activist lawyers. If her leg or a foot were outside the square, by just a small part, they would warn or slap her, she said, as reported by Radio Free Asia4.

While RSDL is regularly used in diplomatic and governmental cases, the Safeguard Defenders report presents figures from a freely accessible legal directory which  establishes that police across China are progressively utilizing it, even for criminal cases that are not of sensitive nature. Close to 6,000 cases are officially recognized and have progressed to trial. The previous year required suspects to be detained in RSDL and that figure is well above the few hundred cases during  Xi Jinping’s first year in power as President. But the report authors approximate the accurate figure of suspects subjected to RSDL is expected between 10,000 to 15,000 per year. And a comparatively small but growing number of foreigners are being trapped within an insidious institution that, at best, will permit them one heavily supervised visit or phone call with diplomats per month.

Yang Hengjun, who is an Australian citizen and one-time Chinese state security agent, was held in RSDL for the first six months of his ongoing two-and-a-half-year incarceration. Another was a former state TV news anchor Cheng Lei, who was picked up from her apartment in mid-2020.

Both were detained in the same southern Beijing detention centre — used specifically for foreign nationals. A six-month deadline under Chinese law makes it compulsory prosecutors to "formally arrest" suspects in RSDL or release them, and in the cases of both Australians they were shifted to criminal detention where their imprisonment continued under slightly better conditions, according to previous messages from prison. Dr Yang has since been given a trial in a closed court for spying but supporters say interrogation records from his RSDL tenure were presented by prosecutors as evidence, in breach of China's own criminal procedure law.

Ms Cheng is still in jail under investigation for leaking state secrets, but she has been formally charged with espionage. Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, Two Canadians who were in March 2021 tried for national security offences , were also held in RSDL facilities located in different cities during the initial six months of their detention. They were seen as victims of hostage diplomacy by China over the arrest of a Chinese national in the Huawei spying case. The group has submitted its new findings relating to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment to a specialised United Nations Agency.

(Pushkar Sinha is writer on foreign affairs. Views expressed are personal)