Chinese Protesters Tortured In 'Black Jails' Share Share Comments
12:38pm UK, Monday December 14, 2009
Peter Sharp, Asia correspondent
Civil rights protesters in China are being dumped in psychiatric wards where they are forced to take mind-altering drugs and given electric shocks.
The treatment is handed out to petitioners - victims of corrupt local governments who have come to the cities to seek justice.
They travel thousands of miles to reach Beijing, but instead of being allowed to voice their grievances they are thrown into illegal "black jails" and many end up placed in mental institutions.
"Pain? You don't know pain until you have had 220 volts going through your body," said Hu Guohong, who had come to Beijing to seek compensation for three months' back pay.
He suffered two hours of electric shock for ten consecutive days.
"My whole insides… it felt like my intestines were turning like clothes put through a washing machine," he said.
Hu Guohong, petitioner
"There are a lot of people who are locked up there. Just like me, protesters. They round you up and simply dump you in the hospital. If you don't do what they say, you get electrocuted."
Sky News gained access to one of the mental institutions and spoke to those behind the bars of an exercise courtyard.
"Some people in here are not even diagnosed with a mental illness. There are all kinds of cases, but most of us are not ill," one man told us.
Liu Feiyue is a lawyer representing hundreds of those detained.
His home in Wuhan in South China is under surveillance by police and we had to meet secretly late at night.
He says the practice of putting protesters in mental hospitals is widespread.
"They want to stop the protesters from voicing their dissenting views," he said.
"So they lock them up in mental hospitals. This is becoming a serious epidemic in China."
Sky News wrote to the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Health to ask why mental hospitals were being used as dumping grounds for those seeking justice.
We received no answer.
A spokesman at the Chinese Embassy in London said it was "not in a position to respond in this regard".
Chinese Dissidents Committed to Mental Hospitals
JIM LEHRER: Next tonight, a diagnosis of mental illness for political dissidents in China. Special correspondent Shannon Van Sant has our Global Health Unit story. She has reported from China for our PBS colleagues at the "Nightly Business Report," among other programs.
SHANNON VAN SANT: Qin Xinan is a long way from home. He has traveled from Wuhan, 700 miles away in central China, to Beijing, where he stays in this one-room shack. Every morning, he goes to government offices, pleading for help.
QIN XINAN, petitioner: I strongly ask Hu Jintao and the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee to punish corruption. Save Chinese people, ordinary people, the weak in society. Save China.
I'm not only standing on my own ground. I speak for thousands of people who get persecuted as mentally ill patients.
SHANNON VAN SANT: A former officer in the People's Liberation Army, Qin has been forcibly hospitalized six times, accused of being mentally ill. He says he's not the only one with grievances who's been treated that way.
QIN XINAN: The first time the diagnosis was acute stress disorder. The second time was paranoid schizophrenia. The third time, just like all the other petitioners, doctors diagnosed me with paranoid psychosis.
SHANNON VAN SANT: Qin's journey began when he came to Beijing to complain about corruption in the factory he worked in. He was a petitioner, one of thousands who come here to seek redress from the central Chinese government for various wrongs, from land seizures to mistreatment by police.
Once in the capital, they stay in makeshift petitioners' villages, like this one. China's petitioning system dates back to the Ming Dynasty 700 years ago, when people appealed for help from the imperial court if they had problems with local officials.
When I visited this neighborhood, petitioners quickly approached, telling me their stories. Within minutes, I was spotted by security officers who marched me out of the neighborhood. When I tried to leave, people surrounded my taxicab, showing me copies of their petitions.
China's emphasis on social harmony provides an incentive for petitioners to press for justice, but it also sets the stage for their persecution. That's because petitioners know that Chinese officials in the central government take unrest in local communities seriously, but the local officials who are being complained about will often seek retribution or try to stop people from petitioning in the first place.
Teng Biao, a professor at the University of Politics and Law in Beijing, says the system itself creates these kinds of problems. He runs an NGO to provide legal aid to petitioners.
TENG BIAO, University of Politics and Law, Beijing: From the top down, the petitioning situation is an assessing index for the officials on their political achievements. If there are many petitioners coming to Beijing from a place, then it will affect the local officials on their promotions and bonuses.
SHANNON VAN SANT: For his work, Teng Biao had his lawyers license and passport taken away. After this interview, Chinese authorities shut down Teng Biao's NGO, and police detained two of his colleagues. Despite the risk, Teng said he will continue his work.
I traveled to Wuhan to talk with another Chinese activist, Liu Feiyue, but he was under house arrest. Liu heads an NGO that is currently following 100 cases of wrongful psychiatric detention. Over the last three years, he says he knows of 500 more whistleblowers and protesters who have been detained in mental hospitals.
Robin Munro, who has extensively researched psychiatric detention in China and written two books on the topic, thinks the practice is widespread.
ROBIN MUNRO, human rights activist: China's experience in this area is far more serious and extensive than any other country.
SHANNON VAN SANT: Munro, who is based in Hong Kong, believes that since there are no national mental health laws protecting the rights of people who have been compulsorily hospitalized, but there are rules limiting arbitrary arrest, hospitals are becoming a convenient means of silencing protesters.
ROBIN MUNRO: Once diagnosed in this way, as dangerously mentally ill, citizens have no rights. They have no legal right to see a lawyer; they have no legal right to be brought before a judge so that a judicial determination can be made.
SHANNON VAN SANT: The Chinese press, including the Beijing News, has reported on the hospitalizations. The story was picked up by the state's official press agency, The People's Daily and Sina.com, where it drew 23,000 comments. Such coverage in Chinese newspapers could imply there is central government support for preventing wrongful psychiatric detention by local officials.
China's Ministry of Health denied requests for an interview, but sent a list of relevant regulations on treatment of the mentally ill, which said, in part, "The diagnosis of psychiatric disease is, according to the Chinese mental disorder category and diagnosis standard third edition, approved by Chinese medical association and referring to the related standards of international disease diagnosis category."
When asked at a press conference about the increasing numbers of protesters being put in mental hospitals, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said...
QIN GANG, Spokesperson, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (through translator): It's the first time for me to hear the situation you addressed. I don't know about the situation of psychiatric hospitals, but please believe the related Chinese governmental departments conduct administration according to law.
SHANNON VAN SANT: But in Wuhan, another petitioner, Hu Guohong, said he has been forcibly hospitalized in mental institutions four times and that he and his wife, Cheng Xue, have been warned repeatedly by local officials to stop petitioning.
HU GUOHONG, petitioner: They said, "We don't allow you to go petitioning to the upper levels. If you do that, we will beat you to death."
SHANNON VAN SANT: Since the couple is under police surveillance, I met them at a hotel room late at night. They showed me a list, with thumbprint signatures, of fellow petitioners who have been detained in Wuhan's psychiatric hospitals.
Hu said, when he complained about being owed back-pay for his work constructing railroad cars, he was beaten by the factory's security team. After Hu demanded compensation for his injuries, police put him in the Wuhan Ankang Psychiatric Hospital for three days.
Since then, doctors have diagnosed him with schizophrenia and paranoia. Police often arrest him before major events, as they did before the Olympics.
HU GUOHONG: They gave me one, and then two yellow pills every day. They said they would set me free after the Olympics. They told me to be nice. But after the Olympics and during the Paralympics, they still held me. At the end of September, I escaped. They caught me, and the next day they gave me electric shocks.
SHANNON VAN SANT: The shocks were administered with electrified needles that pierced the feet, the palms of his hands, and his temples.
HU GUOHONG: The electric shocks continued for two hours of high voltage.
SHANNON VAN SANT: He's been detained twice since then, including just after I interviewed him, which was five days before the anniversary of the government's crackdown in Tiananmen Square. He was kept in a hospital for 12 days.
ROBIN MUNRO: Whenever there's a big -- there's a crackdown of some kind going on in the country, a political crackdown or the Olympics are coming up, a huge international event, then the police will be instructed to go out and preemptively detain anyone who might stage an embarrassing incident to the government in the run-up to these crucial events. And people on the list who are mentally ill -- or allegedly mentally ill -- are among the first people that will be preemptively detained.
SHANNON VAN SANT: Despite the dangers, many petitioners refuse to give up. Qin Xinan says he'll stay in Beijing as long as he can, petitioning for help.
QIN XINAN: I have been to Beijing 133 times. I have no other way. My family is destroyed. I wander the streets of Beijing. I am a 60-year-old man begging for food and asking the government for justice, to right a wrong.
SHANNON VAN SANT: But he expects to be arrested by the end of the summer, before the anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on October 1st.
JIM LEHRER: And since that report was produced, the Chinese government has cracked down further on activists. For the first time, they've issued a regulation banning petitioners from traveling to Beijing.
China accused of holding woman in mental hospital for challenging officials
They snatched Liao Meizhi on her birthday, dragging her off the street and into a dirty blue van as others held back her husband.
It was only two months later, when a stranger knocked on the door, that her family learned where she had been taken. The man said he had just been discharged from a nearby mental hospital – and that Liao was being held there against her will. Her husband insists she has no psychiatric problems.
More than six months after she was seized, her family says she remains incarcerated in the nondescript building with thick steel doors just outside her hometown of Qianjiang, in China's central Hubei province.
Researchers believe she is among a growing number of people wrongly detained in psychiatric institutions after clashing with local officials. One activist has compiled a database of more than 500 such cases.
Some victims have been held for a decade. Those freed describe being forcibly treated – with electro-convulsive therapy and powerful anti-psychotic drugs – for health problems they never had.
"In the last few years you have been seeing more and more cases involving petitioners and whistle blowers – 'the awkward squad' – [often when] the authorities have tried other punishments or sanctions to make them stop and nothing else has worked," said Robin Munro, author of China's Psychiatric Inquisition and a research associate at SOAS law school. "Finally they really try to scare them to hell by putting them in mental hospitals."
There is historical precedent: from the 60s to the 80s, some types of dissidence were regarded as evidence of mental illness and therefore "treatable" via incarceration. "[But] from the late 80s it has been 100% expediency, designed to punish or silence someone – or both. It's incredibly easy to do and extremely convenient," said Munro.
Liao had tussled with local officials for nine years over her father-in-law's pension. In the last three she travelled to Beijing four times to raise her family's grievance with central government. Each time, local authorities seized and returned her. Her husband Yang Chunguang said she was sent to black jails – unofficial detention houses – and beaten. His photos show huge, livid bruises upon Liao's arms and legs. After one such incident, he said, he agreed to admit her to the Qianjiang mental hospital because officials threatened to harm her otherwise. A doctor diagnosed Liao's "paranoia", with the admission form citing "delusions of persecution". The evidence: she "believed she had been attacked; petitioned for [many] years".
Liao was released two days later. Soon she was petitioning again.
The family thought it had finally resolved its dispute this winter. But in January four thugs launched a serious assault on Liao as she shopped in a local market.
The couple were convinced it was related to the row and went to authorities to complain as soon as Liao had recovered. As they left the government offices, around a dozen men snatched her. Her husband believes he recognised two of her assailants from the health department. But the office denied involvement and police refused to register his complaint.
Even when Yang learnt of Liao's incarceration, the Yanshi mental hospital denied it was holding her. It took six visits before it allowed him to see her, for around 15 minutes.
His normally loquacious wife, who had been an actor and singer in her youth, was subdued. "Her whole face and head were swollen, probably from crying too much," he said. "She said 'I didn't think I would end up here'. They treated her like a prisoner."
He has not seen her since that visit in April. "She is the cornerstone of the family. I want her back, soon, so we can go back to normal life," he said.
But Liu Feiyue of Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch, who monitors such cases, warned that the effects of incarceration are lasting. "Many victims suffer long term depression and struggle after their release. When they return to society, they experience discrimination," he said.
Munro fears that pressure to curb other forms of arbitrary detention has led some officials to turn to psychiatric institutions, where they face few awkward questions. China does not have a mental health law; there are no admission hearings and no rights to legal counsel or a second opinion.
Piecemeal regulations stipulate that admission requires a psychiatric evaluation showing individuals are a risk to themselves or others and the approval of their legal guardians – almost always close relatives – or police officers who believe they have committed or will commit a crime.
Even these inadequate criteria are frequently ignored, say researchers.
"Hospitals get orders from higher government bodies to take patients. Then they will prefer not to do tests," said Liu.
Asked about Liao, the head nurse at Yanshi mental hospital said she could not comment due to patient confidentiality and hung up. The city's police did not respond to faxed questions.
An employee at Qianjiang health department, who did not give her name, said: "Yes, we took her because she is mentally ill."
But following further questions, she claimed: "We didn't take her. We don't know anything."
With no time limit on detention, and no appeals, hospitals need not release patients until or unless they choose.
"There is not much to be done about it," said Huang Xuetao, a Shenzhen-based lawyer who has acted for several detainees.
Without legal means of resolution, he appeals to whoever ordered detention and asks the media for help. "Sometimes it works," he said. "Sometimes it makes it worse."
Other casesHuman rights groups and Chinese media have documented numerous cases of psychiatric detention being abused.
Earlier this year the Southern Daily reported that Xu Lindong of Luohe in Henan province spent six years in a mental hospital for petitioning and helping other petitioners. Xu told Reuters that he was forced to take drugs and was given electric shocks.
Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch reported that Wang Suiling from Nanyang in from Henan province had been forcibly detained seven times, given injections and forced to swallow pills after petitioning over a fraud case.
Last year the Chinese Human Rights Defenders network reported that two sisters from Yunxi in Hebei province, Jin Hanyan and Jin Hanqin, were forcibly held in a mental hospital after petitioning.
They were released in April this year.
In 2008 the Beijing News reported that at least 18 people were bringing complaints against authorities after being held in a mental hospital in Xintai, Shandong province against their will.