Detentions illustrate limits of free speech in China


POSTED: Friday, July 31, 2009

BEIJING — A woman and her two sisters who came to Beijing from southern China during the Paralympics last September to protest property seizures but were arrested have been sentenced to one year of a form of house arrest for vandalism, the woman said in a telephone interview on Thursday. The woman, Huang Liuhong, had already been held for nearly a year in a hotel — known as a black jail — while awaiting trial.

Huang was released from the hotel, the Lizhou Cement Factory Rest House, on July 17 and said she expected to serve her one-year sentence in her hometown, under police surveillance. The case is one of several that starkly illustrate how the Summer Olympics and Paralympics in Beijing last year failed to expand freedom of speech in China, despite insistence by the international organizers of those games that the events would push the Chinese government toward more democratic policies.

Huang traveled with 10 others from the town of Liuzhou in Guangxi province to Beijing last September to protest four different cases of property seizure involving local officials. But after being interviewed by an American journalist, they were seized by plainclothes police officers who had followed them up from Guangxi. Huang, two older sisters and their 79-year-old mother, all of whom had gone to Beijing, were arrested.

The mother was soon released, but Huang and her infant son were kept for 314 days in a hotel. Her two sisters were held in a detention center.

Huang said she and her sisters were not put on trial until June 19. The judge found them guilty of vandalism and sentenced them to one year in prison followed by two years of probation. The two older sisters were released July 14, Huang said, each having served almost the entire sentence under the verdict because of their time in the detention center.

Others from the group of 11 that went to Beijing had also been put on trial.

After her release from the so-called black jail, Huang was given a week to visit her husband in the southern city of Shenzhen, where she is now. But she will have to return to Liuzhou and spend a year under a version of house arrest, during which she can live in her home and move around Liuzhou but not leave the town, she said.

“They said someone will be watching me,” she said.

The court in Liuzhou had no immediate comment on Thursday; copies of court documents provided by Huang showed that she was found guilty of vandalism.

Huang said the police accused her of breaking the window of a police van after she had been detained in Beijing. She said she never damaged the van.

During her nearly year-long detention in the hotel, three police officers and three babysitters were assigned to watch her and her infant son, she said. She was also monitored through a surveillance camera in the hotel room, she added. The cost to the government was in the thousands of dollars at least, she estimated.

The three sisters plan to appeal the verdict, but there is little hope of a reversal, Huang said.