On September 24, Chinese authorities released Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig after detaining them for more than 1,000 days. The two men were not held in a regular prison but were placed under “house arrest in a designated place” (RSDL), conditions which have been compared to enforced disappearance by rights groups.
The two Canadians had limited access to a lawyer or consular services and lived in cells with 24-hour lighting.
Following changes to Chinese criminal law in 2012, police now have the right to detain anyone – foreign or Chinese – for up to six months in a designated place without revealing their whereabouts. Spain-based rights group Safeguard Defenders says as many as 27,208 to 56,963 people have gone through China’s RSDL system since 2013, citing data from the Supreme People’s Court and testimonies from survivors and victims. lawyers.
“These high-profile cases obviously get a lot of attention, but they shouldn’t detract from the fact that there’s no transparency. Collecting the available data and analyzing the trends, the estimate is that every year, 4-5,000 people go missing in the RSDL system alone,” said Michael Caster, co-founder of rights watchdog Safeguard Defenders.
Caster estimated that in 2020, between 10,000 and 15,000 people went through the system, compared to just 500 in 2013.
The number includes well-known names like artist Ai Wei Wei and human rights lawyers Wang Yu and Wang Quanzhang, who were caught up in China’s 2015 crackdown on human rights defenders. Other foreigners have also passed through RSDL, such as Peter Dahlin, a Swedish activist and co-founder of Safeguard Defenders, and Canadian missionaries Kevin and Julia Garrett, who were charged with espionage in 2014.
William Nee, research and advocacy coordinator at China Human Rights Defenders, said that since RSDL was first used nearly a decade ago, use of the extrajudicial detention system has grown from a exception in its infancy to a more widely used tool.
“Before, when Ai Wei Wei was taken away, they had to come up with an excuse saying it was really about his business, or some tax issue or something like that. So there’s this trend, a decade or two ago, where they used a pretext to detain someone when the real reason was their public participation or their political views,” Nee said. “There was a fear that [RSDL] was going to make it more routine “legal,” giving it a veneer of legality and legitimacy. And I think it’s been confirmed well.
Communist Party members, state employees and anyone involved in “public affairs” are detained in a similar parallel system known as liuzhi. Since its introduction in 2018, an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 people are detained at Liuzhi each year, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Conditions under RSDL and liuzhi have been described as amounting to torture, and detainees are being held without the right to a lawyer. Sleep deprivation, isolation, solitary confinement, beatings and forced stress positions have been reported by survivors of both systems, according to several advocacy groups. In some cases, inmates can be placed in an infamous “tiger chair” that restricts limb movement for days at a time.
Together, RSDL, liuzhi and similar extrajudicial procedures have “systematized arbitrary and secret detention”, Caster said.
Al Jazeera has contacted the Chinese Foreign Ministry for comment, but has not received a response as of press time.
China has previously accused organizations such as the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances of misrepresenting its use of RSDL, the practice of which it says is governed by its penal code as an alternative to arresting people. ‘a suspect. He also said that under the Chinese constitution, it is illegal to unlawfully detain an individual or deprive him of his personal liberty.
Asked about Spavor and Kovrig while in detention, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that while the two men were suspected of endangering national security, their “legitimate rights had been guaranteed” and they were not being held in detention. “arbitrary detention” while their cases proceeded “in accordance with the law.”
The couple’s detention in 2018 was widely seen as retaliation for the arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou by Canadian authorities at the request of the United States. Meng was wanted by the US Department of Justice for allegedly helping the Chinese tech giant conduct business in Iran despite US sanctions.
Shortly before their release, Spavor, a businessman who worked in North Korea, was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 11 years in prison while Kovrig had not yet been sentenced. The couple escaped another prison sentence when Canada finally allowed Meng to return to China after living under house arrest, but for many people RSDL is just the beginning.
Ongoing cases over the past year include Cheng Lei, a dual Chinese-Australian TV presenter who was placed under RSDL in August 2020 and later arrested on “suspicion of unlawfully providing state secrets to overseas,” and human rights lawyer Chang Weiping, who has been in and out of custody since early 2020 for participating in a democracy discussion. He was later detained again after describing his experience in RSDL on YouTube.
Caster said cases like these with well-known names are just the “tip of the iceberg.”
“For the hundreds or thousands of members of civil society who don’t have their own Wikipedia entry, they could be detained for as long as possible under one of these systems. And then they are released into criminal custody to wait for the investigation to continue,” he said.