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Page last updated at 14:52 GMT, Wednesday, 10 December 2008

'Locked up for complaining in China'

By Chris Hogg
BBC News, Xintai, Shandong province

In China, if you have a complaint about a corrupt official, or if you have been badly treated by the police, it is hard to get your voice heard.

Petitioner Sun Fa Wu
They took me to the ward and tied me to the bed... Then they ground down the pills and forced the powder into my mouth with a syringe
Sun Fa Wu, 57
In Shandong province, a small group of people claim they were locked up in a mental institution against their will after they dared to complain about the way the authorities treated them.

They now have the satisfaction of knowing their claims are being discussed on internet bulletin boards throughout the country.

And, unusually, their complaints have surfaced in the state media.

They were featured in an investigation by a Beijing newspaper into the treatment of "petitioners" - those who travel to the capital to air their grievances and petition the central authorities for their support.

The group, both men and women in their 40s or older, had different motives when they began petitioning, but all now have the same complaint: that they were detained illegally by the local officials they sought to expose.

They gather in a small insurance office next to a dusty road to tell their stories. Each is taking considerable risk in talking to a foreign journalist. All have been told in the past to "stop making trouble".

'Manhandled'

One man, Sun Fa Wu, is a 57-year-old with neatly styled grey hair, wearing a dark blue "Sun Yat Sen" suit.

He says he was locked up in the local mental asylum for three weeks in October after travelling to Beijing to petition officials there over damage to his land caused by mining.

As he describes how the doctors forced him to take medication, he twists and contorts his body to demonstrate how they manhandled him and grabs his own throat to show how he was forced to swallow the drugs.

"They took me to the ward and tied me to the bed," he says. "They pulled my hair and blindfolded me when I struggled. Then they ground down the pills and forced the powder into my mouth with a syringe."

His family pleaded with doctors to release him, he says. His mother was dying. Eventually his brother went down on his knees in front of the officials at the local council offices and begged them to let Mr Sun out of the asylum before his mother died.

They agreed, but it was too late. She had passed away.

'You will not win'

Another woman pushes forward, and spreads out photographs of her younger sister on the table. The pictures show a woman who has been badly beaten. There are huge welts and bruises all over her body.

Petitioner Xu Xue Ling
Ms Xu says she was complaining about her sister's assault by police
The woman telling her story - Xu Xue Ling, 46 - says her sister was beaten three times by the police. She started petitioning the authorities in Beijing to complain.

Eventually she was picked up in the Chinese capital and brought back to the mental asylum in the Xintai district.

That was in May. She was locked up there for six days.

"I told the doctors I was not a lunatic," the woman says. "I was just seeking justice for my sister. They said the local government has said you are a lunatic and they have paid money. If you want to fight the Communist Party you will not win."

These are serious allegations that are, at this stage, impossible to verify.

Staff the BBC spoke to at the mental asylum said they were not allowed to comment, although earlier on the phone they had denied flatly the claims of the petitioners.

The director's office inside the main block is a shabby, bare room with two desks and five files sitting in a neat row. There is no phone, no computer.

Shabby

Across a yard is the building where the patients are kept. Staff say there are 71 at present, housed in two wings, one for men and one for women. It is a shabby, run-down building.

Xintai mental asylum in Xintai, Shandong province, China
The asylum's director did not want to talk to the BBC
"Most of our patients come from rural areas," staff members explain. "There isn't much money to care for them."

A few patients can be seen in the shadows as the afternoon light fades, shuffling along aimlessly, sometimes pausing to look out of the window.

The staff said the asylum's director, Dr Wu, would appear "soon" to give his side of the story, but after a three-hour wait there was no sign of him.

Later our driver told us he had seen several official-looking vehicles sweep out of the compound earlier. There were lots of police vehicles around.

It appeared we were duped, perhaps kept out of the way while officials from various bodies who had been meeting at the hospital could leave unobserved.

All further inquiries were referred to the local government offices in Xintai. There an official in the information office, Mr Sun, said that the council had set up an investigation team after they had seen the Beijing newspaper's report.

"Once that was completed," he said, "they will be able to tell people the truth."

No reprisals

Chinese government officials recently let it be known that they would allow articles to be published in the state media that were more critical of the establishment.

The reporter who compiled the investigation for the Beijing News, Huang Yuhao, told the BBC that so far there had been no reprisals directed against him or his newspaper.

The petitioners in Xintai say they have nothing left to fear from speaking out. They complain that they have suffered greatly already. What worse could happen to them?



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