MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The group Human Rights Watch is calling attention to what it calls severe rights abuses in a network of secret, unlawful detention centers in China, known as black jails. Human Rights Watch interviewed 38 former detainees who described being abducted from the streets, hauled to makeshift jails and detained under harsh conditions. Their new report is called ´┐ŻAlleyway to Hell.´┐Ż

And Brad Adams, the Asia director for Human Rights Watch, joins us to talk about what they found. Welcome to the program.

Mr. BRAD ADAMS (Asia Director, Human Rights Watch): Thank you.

BLOCK: The people who are being detained are petitioners, often from the provinces, and they've come to Beijing or other big cities to voice their grievances - a system of petitioning that goes back hundreds of years. What if you heard from these detainees about the conditions in these black jails?

Mr. ADAMS: Well, they're really frightening. They're not proper places of detention. They're called black jails because they are hidden from public view. And they can vary from being very shabby kind of rooming houses to very small cells and the treatment inside them can vary as well. Some people report being beaten. Other people report - the other end of the spectrum, just being held indefinitely and basically suffering mental torture because they don't know who's taken them, and how long they're going to be held.

BLOCK: Who is running this system - this network of black jails in China?

Mr. ADAMS: The black jails are an uncoordinated network run by the provinces. There also are some black jails being run in Beijing by the Public Security Bureau, which is the national security operation for the Chinese government.

BLOCK: And there's a financial motivation here, right? The provincial authorities face penalties from the central government if large numbers of their citizens are petitioning. So the way your report describes it, these provincial authorities have this system they use, what you call thugs, to sweep up the petitioners and keep them out of sight and in exchange they pay money to the black jail operators.

Mr. ADAMS: That's right, the thugs are also called retrievers because they're some to retrieve people from Beijing back to the provinces. They have a financial incentive. They have an administrative incentive because the local officials want this done and they have a political incentive to keep the authorities in Beijing from knowing that these problems exist.

BLOCK: The detainees who are taken to these so-called black jails, how are they freed? When do they get free?

Mr. ADAMS: Well, there's no system. There is no due process. It's not like a judge releases them. It can be through a payment of bribes. It can be because people promised to behave, it can be because of an intervention from people who know that they have disappeared. It's entirely haphazard, inconsistent.

BLOCK: There was a response from the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman last week. He said, I can assure you there are no so-called black jails in China. We put people first and we are an administration for the people. They're denying this entirely.

Mr. ADAMS: Yeah, well, they've a habit denying reality when it's put in the form of a Human Rights Watch report. But if you talk to Chinese officials privately, as I have done and some of my colleagues have done, they admit that these jails exist. That it's a very serious problem. And they don't really know what to do about it. One of the problems is that putting these people in jail in China through the official system would offend a lot of Chinese people because they're simply going to Beijing to ask for justice for things like having land appropriated, their houses condemned for development purposes, complaining about local corruption and things like that, that the Chinese government says it's against.

BLOCK: And it's encouraging the petitioners to do that.

Mr. ADAMS: The Chinese government has in the past encouraged the petitioners to go to Beijing to ask for justice because there's no independent judiciary in China. The legal system still hardly functions in most of the country. And the Chinese government is worried about explosions of popular anger at a local level. So, this is a way for people to release their anger in more of a controlled manner.

BLOCK: Do you know are these black jails on President Obama's radar screen at all as he deals with China?

Mr. ADAMS: We don't know whether he brought this up. We've urged the administration. We've provided the information to the administration about this. It is a big issue in China and we hope that he brought it up but we have no assurances that he did.

BLOCK: Brad Adams is Asia director for Human Rights Watch. Thank you very much.

Mr. ADAMS: Thank you, Melissa.

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