China – new legislation on police detention

With thanks to the Guardian 8 March 2012
Photograph: David Gray/Reuters
Earlier this month, China unveiled legislation allowing police to hold those suspected of ‘state crimes’ at unknown and unnamed locations, but after much controversy, has removed a secrecy clause permitting police to hold some suspects for up to six months without informing their families.

State security crimes include subversion and other vaguely-worded charges often used against dissidents.

Having spent 11 months of the last five years in Buenos Aires I became familiar with the stories of ‘los desaparecidos’ of Argentina – up to 30,000 dissidents that in the late 1970’s were spirited away at nightfall, some to be dropped from aircraft into the Atlantic, many never to be seen again. Now, each Thursday, the female relatives and supporters of the disappeared silently circle Plaza de Mayo (between  the Presidential Palace Casa Rosada and the Parliament Congreso) – in memory and in protest.

With the amendment of the Chinese legislation, legalised disappearances may be avoided in  China, but the overall import of the new procedure is far from clear.

When Pu Zhiqiang, a Beijing lawyer who has taken on sensitive cases such as those involving dissidents, spoke out about the issue of enforcement of the legislation, police attended his offices to prevent him making further comment.

How many lawyers working as we do in democratically accountable systems take for granted some aspects of  important protection offered by our laws against state control? Are we  conditioned in a moderate climate to perceive the excesses of unaccountable detention as a distant and unlikely threat? Now within our global environment, it is not even more important that we are prominent and heard on these issues? Perhaps that is one of the essential justifications for an independent Bar; something worth fighting for.

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