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Detention system under spotlight after jail death
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The tragic accidental death of a detained man put China's police custody system under the spotlight this week after a skeptical public took an unusual action to probe the truth.

A group of netizens joined local police officers and prosecutors Friday to inspect the detention center in Jinning County, southwest China's Yunnan Province, where 24-year-old Li Qiaoming was fatally injured two weeks ago.

Li was detained on Jan. 30 for illegally cutting down trees. He died on Feb. 12 in the hospital due to severe brain injuries. Police in charge of the detention center said Li was accidentally injured while running into a wall blindfolded during a hide-and-seek game with inmates, an activity that is not allowed.

But Internet users vehemently questioned the police explanation, citing it as "weird" and "hard to believe." Many Chinese media, print and online, intensively covered the "hide-and-seek" case in the past week.

In a surprising move, the publicity department of Yunnan provincial committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) responded to widespread calls for an independent probe by inviting netizens to set up an investigation commission.

The attempt has been widely praised as a milestone for China in giving the public a new platform to exercise their legal right-to-know.

After a one-day inquiry on the spot, the commission published their report in full text online on Saturday, detailing what they saw and heard in the detention house, including living conditions and files about Li's ten days in jail.

"We've tried our best to be close to the truth," said Wang Yan, a reporter based in Yunnan and a member of the commission. "We want to give the public useful information as much as possible."

But the commission acknowledged that it was not easy to find out the truth in just one day because they were not trained investigators.

Li's death has aroused speculations about whether it was caused by ignorance of detention staff or violent abuse by other inmates. The commission report said local prosecution authorities have ruled out the rumors based on previous investigations.

Local police expressed concern that they had been unfairly targeted, saying that the details of Li's death were exaggerated.

But the commission members argued the root cause for the investigation was the police department's previous failures to communicate with the public.

While Li's case has been closed, many focused their attentions on an even bigger issue: Whether should law enforcement departments improve the transparency of the detention system and allow independent inquiry to become a regular practice?

"Why does Li's death and the following 'hide-and-seek' explanation suddenly become a national topic? This at least reflects the fact that the police are losing credibility due to lack of transparency in detention centers," Liu Renwen, a law expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told Xinhua on Saturday.

He said because detention centers in China seldom allow public and independent inquiries into particular cases such as deaths during custody, the public increasingly has a feeling of being fooled.

"It is very natural for the public to speculate. They just don't trust police," Liu said.

The lack of outside supervision could also lead to more violations of detainees' rights during interrogation, although this is clearly banned by Chinese laws, he said.

The Supreme People's Procuratorate statistics show Chinese procuratorates punished 930 government workers in 2006 who illegally took people into custody and extorted confessions by torture.

Cheng Lei, with the Research Center of Litigation System and Judicial Reform under the Beijing-based Renmin University of China, said the police should learn a lesson from Li Qiaoming's case.

"They must understand that the more transparently you deal with the case, instead of covering up, the more understanding you'll win from the public," he said.

Cheng said the center was conducting a pilot program in three cities to send public inspectors to detention houses, learning from some European countries such as Britain.

The inspectors, selected from qualified doctors, teachers, entrepreneurs, civil servants or community workers, are entitled to select time to visit local jails and randomly choose detainees to talk to.

They are also entitled to inspect the jails' condition and examine the jails' records so as to ensure that custody procedures are in line with the law and detainees are treated humanely.

But the experts said China still has a long way to go to change current situations in detention centers.

"Different from many other countries which grant bail to most crime suspects, in China most suspects are kept in custody until they stand trial," Liu said.

While such a practice may help detectives improve efficiency, it could also cause corruption and illegal acts such as extorted confessions by torture, he warned.

"Nevertheless, what happened in the 'hide-and-seek' case gave us a hope that opinions of ordinary people, including netizens, are being heard," Liu said.

Wu Hao, deputy publicity head of the Yunnan provincial committee of the CPC, confirmed with Xinhua that they would continue the practice in future to give the public better access to information.

"This is just an attempt. We will continue to invite the public to participate in similar events. Only openness can stop rumors," he said.

(Xinhua News Agency February 22, 2009)

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