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China jails 10 for illegally detaining petitioners

A Beijing court has sentenced a group of men for illegally detaining people seeking to have their complaints heard by the central government, state media reported Sunday, in an apparent blow against attempts by local governments to cover up corruption and other abuses of power.

Beijing's Chaoyang District Court sentenced one defendant to a year and a half in prison on Nov. 28 and gave months-long sentences to nine others, according to state media reports. The plaintiffs were not identified and calls to the court rang unanswered.

The report could not immediately be confirmed and it wasn't clear when the sentences were handed down. The official China Daily newspaper briefly ran a story on its website saying the sentences had not yet been handed down, but later removed the report.

The official Guangmingwang website said the men had detained a number of people from central Henan province who had traveled to the capital hoping to have their complaints settled by the central government. Such petitioners are frequently intercepted by local government agents and detained illegally in shabby hostels commonly known as "black jails."

The website said police acting on a complaint raided a compound in the northeastern suburbs of Beijing at the beginning of May and freed a dozen illegally detained petitioners who said they had been beaten and threatened for having brought their complaints to Beijing.

The government has recently begun acknowledging the existence of black jails as part of modest attempts to stamp out the most glaring abuses of power, but has met with only middling success. A central government order to close representative offices maintained in Beijing by local governments for the purpose of blocking complaints and lobbying for projects and funding has been mostly ignored.

The petitioning system harkens back to ancient times when Chinese emperors were obligated to hear complaints brought from commoners in the provinces. In recent years, it has been employed to skirt violence, threats, and bureaucratic hurdles put in place to block redress over corruption, illegal land seizures, unjust discrimination and other abuses at the local level.

Black jails have also been used in the past to detain political and religious dissidents, especially members of the outlawed Falun Gong meditation movement.