BEIJING China's parliament unveiled legislation on Thursday solidifying police powers to hold dissidents in secret, prompting an outcry from artist Ai Weiwei and other rights campaigners caught in a surge of clandestine detentions last year.
The ruling Communist Party, however, retreated from the most draconian part of rules for one kind of detention, "residential surveillance", which were proposed last year.
Police powers to hold suspects facing subversion and other state security accusations are set out in revisions to the Criminal Procedure Law presented to parliament, the National People's Congress, now in annual full session.
"Detainees' families should be notified within 24 hours, except when impossible, or when they are involved in crimes concerning state security or terrorism, and notification could obstruct investigations," the government said in a provision on detention in legal amendments issued to delegates and reporters.
The detention provisions drew criticism of Communist Party controls to stifle dissent ahead of a leadership succession late this year. The party-run parliament more or less automatically approves legislation proposed by the government.
"I think this shows the present political mentality of lack of confidence and of fear," Ai Weiwei, an internationally renowned artist who was secretively detained in April last year, said when asked about the amendments on detention.
"This is a massive threat to the judicial system and to citizens' security," said Ai, who became the most prominent face of hundreds held in the crackdown on dissent. He was released and fined for tax charges he has challenged as unfounded.
In China, "state security crimes" include subversion and other vaguely defined political charges used to punish dissidents who challenge the Communist Party.
Police and prosecutors already wield broad powers to detain people, and party-run courts rarely challenge how the powers are used. Critics have said the secret detention amendments give a veneer of authority to arbitrary powers, risking more abuses.
Fearing that anti-authoritarian uprisings across the Arab world could inspire challenges to Communist rule, Beijing last year held dozens of activists for weeks or months in secretive detention, and some later spoke of harsh, even traumatic abuses.
"The authorities want legislation only for the sake of preserving stability, that is, restricting citizen's rights," said Jiang Tianyong, a Beijing human rights lawyer held in secret last year. He also criticized the secret detention powers enshrined in the new legislation.
But the government backed down from expanding another kind of detention, "residential surveillance", which has been used to keep dissidents in hotels, state guesthouses and other sites away from families, lawyers and the public eye.
The revised law says that when suspects or defendants are "involved in crimes concerning state security, terrorism or especially serious corruption and notification of where they are residing could obstruct investigations", they can he held in residential surveillance outside their own homes or state-run detention centers. But families must be told within 24 hours.
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A draft of the revised law issued last year drew an even sharper outcry from lawyers and advocates for allowing residential surveillance for dissidents and terror suspects without having to tell their families even that they were held.
The uproar apparently forced the government to scale back the scope for such residential detention, although police still hold sweeping powers, said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group.
"I think that they've been defeated and that the legal reformers' views have prevailed, and they've rolled back this attempt by the police to considerably expand their power," said Bequelin, who has closely followed the debate about the law.
A Chinese parliament official who helps manage legislation, Lang Sheng, told reporters the final changes to the detention rules showed the parliament "takes seriously ensuring the rights of citizens" and denied China allowed "secret detention".
China introduced residential surveillance so that ill, pregnant and otherwise vulnerable people could avoid outright detention, but it has mutated into a tool for police to hold citizens outside the orbit of courts and lawyers, said Joshua Rosenzweig, an independent human rights researcher in Hong Kong.
The amendments give that mutation a legal footing, he said.
"It allows police to put someone in that custody without having to justify it to anyone," Rosenzweig said by telephone.
Other parts of the criminal procedure changes have been welcomed by lawyers, who have said they could improve their access to suspects and defendants, and discourage seeking evidence obtained through torture and other illegal means.
"The real issue is not what the laws say, but how they are enforced," said Pu Zhiqiang, a Beijing lawyer who takes on contentious cases involving dissidents and media freedom.
"The pattern is that the Communist Party can play by rules when there aren't special circumstances, but whenever there are special circumstances, it doesn't have to play by them," he said, referring to periods of political tension.