BEIJING — The Chinese government on Thursday announced it has scrapped plans for a new law that would have allowed police to bundle suspects off to undisclosed locations without notifying their family — a notion that had raised outrage among human rights activists.
As long as family members can be located, they will be told within 24 hours that their relative has been placed under "residential surveillance," reported Wang Zhaoguo, a senior member of the China's National People's Congress, which is in the midst of its annual meeting. In China, "residential surveillance," a term similar to house arrest, can also take place in locations other than a suspect's home.
A prior draft of the law had essentially given police the legal power to make people disappear without explanation of where they were being held.
Wang, in his report to a meeting of the congress, cited "the need of protecting the rights of the suspect" and said that "it's necessary to have strict limits on the exceptions of not notifying the family after taking enforcement measures."
Rights advocates remained skeptical, however, that the decision to delete the proposed change would mark greater Chinese government respect for suspects' rights. Police in China often seem unconstrained by written law, especially when dealing with those who speak out against the Chinese Communist Party. During crackdowns on activists that gained steam last year, police have dragged people off and held them incommunicado through a variety of extrajudicial means.
"The proof of progress in the reforms will be judged by enforcement, but there is not a good track record here and there is very little in the way of remedies or sanctions for non-compliance," Joshua Rosenzweig, a Hong Kong-based human rights researcher who has been following the issue closely, said in an e-mail.
The revised criminal procedure law is thought to be assured of passing when it's put to vote by the congress, which is widely viewed as more ceremonial than substantive.
China Daily, a state-run newspaper, announced the news online with a headline reading: "China highlights human rights in law revision." The article, by the state's official Xinhua news service, pointed out that "the draft amendment, for the first time, has made clear that confessions extorted through illegal means, such as torture, and testimony of witnesses and depositions of victims obtained illegally, such as by violence or threats, should be excluded during the trials."
Wang Zhaoguo's announcement Thursday was a bit confusing on one point — whether police would be exempt from the 24-hour family notice if a case involved terrorism or state security, categories of crimes that might be used particularly against political activists.
Legal experts said that in such instances, police could avoid notification only if a suspect has been taken to a detention facility. Police would then have to successfully argue that telling the family could hinder the investigation. Even when that happens, though, prosecutors have to approve formal arrest within 30 days, at which point a suspect's family would be notified.
"Overall, for ordinary criminal suspects, the revisions of the criminal procedure law point in the right direction, and, should Beijing decide so, offer a concrete avenue for progress in the administration of justice," Nicholas Bequelin, a senior Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, said in an e-mail.
But, he added: "For years the Public Security has routinely ignored, with almost complete impunity, the procedural protections that were already in the law. ... I do not expect any significant improvement in the case of political dissidents and national security suspects, simply because these cases are driven directly by the Party, not the judiciary."
A McClatchy reporter tried Thursday to get some perspective on the changes from a prominent Beijing attorney of dissidents, Pu Zhiqiang. Pu has recently been representing a businessman who was reportedly threatened by police after posting a note online saying he would shed light on a high-profile official corruption case.
Reached by phone, Pu said he wouldn't be able to discuss the matter at that moment.
"There are two policemen in my office right now," he said. "It's not convenient for me to talk."
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