China bars Red Cross from jails

January 28, 1995|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

BEIJING -- A senior Chinese prison official yesterday ruled out visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross to the country's political prisoners unless the organization dropped its standard conditions for interviewing the inmates.

The official's comments came a year after China's foreign

minister announced that it would negotiate with Red Cross about access to Chinese prisons, an announcement seen at the time as an important effort to meet U.S. objections to China's human rights policies.

Red Cross officials have visited China three times since then for talks. Each time, the talks have been touted by the Clinton administration as proof that China was improving its treatment of dissidents.

But the Chinese official, who asked to be identified only as "a senior official in charge of prison affairs in the Ministry of Justice," made clear that China has little intention of allowing the Red Cross to conduct actual prison inspections and interviews.

China did not have political prisoners, the official said. And if it did have any, he continued, it could not allow the Red Cross to interview them in private with its own translators.

"That is hardly feasible in China," the official said.

Red Cross officials in Switzerland, interviewed by telephone, said the organization set three conditions before agreeing to prison visits in any country: The organization must be allowed to interview any prisoner it chooses, including political prisoners; the inspections must be allowed to be repeated; and the talks must be unchaperoned.

The Chinese official said Red Cross prison inspections were only appropriate during wars, when the organization could check the condition of prisoners of war. Noting that China was not at war, the official said there was now no reason for the Red Cross to visit.

As for meeting in private without translators provided by China, the official said China's many dialects made it impossible for the Red Cross to supply its own translators.

Red Cross officials said they were prepared for long negotiations with China and could not comment other than saying they looked forward to the next round of talks, scheduled for the spring.

About 60 other countries allow Red Cross prison visits, permitting the organization to interview about 140,000 prisoners a year. According to the government official, China has about 1.2 million prisoners -- about the same number as the United States, though China's population is five times larger.

It was markedly unusual for the senior official to meet with Western reporters, and he attempted to balance his rejection of the Red Cross by releasing information about well-known dissidents.

The official said that Liu Gang, an imprisoned leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, was in good health. Mr. Liu has complained of mistreatment.

"He has never been maltreated or tortured," the official said. "His health will be clear to all when he is released in July" after serving his six-year sentence.

Mr. Liu was one of 2,679 people imprisoned in China as of last September for "counter-revolutionary" activity, the official said -- a figure slightly lower than earlier estimates. He said 700 people in Beijing had been sentenced as counter-revolutionaries in connection with the Tiananmen protests, but did not have figures for other cities or provinces.

In Tibet, the official said, the province's three prisons house a total of 1,000 prisoners, one-fifth of whom were sentenced as counter-revolutionaries. His figures showed that Tibet, with one-tenth of 1 percent of China's population, has 7 percent of China's political prisoners.

A new law prohibits torture and forced confessions, and also guarantees prisoners the right to file complaints against their jailers and the right to see family members, the official said.

But China's best-known dissident, Wei Jingsheng, who disappeared last year, is not covered by the new law because he is held in a jail outside the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Prison Management, the official said.

Mr. Wei is being held under administrative detention, a relatively new police power that allows citizens to be held and sentenced without trial to three years of "reform through education."

Also outside the bureau's purview are inmates of China's notorious Qincheng No. 1 Prison. The prison, which has housed Mr. Wei, other dissidents and out-of-favor political leaders, is run directly by the Ministry of Public Security, the official said. He said he had visited the prison and that it held "not many."

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