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Hope for human rights or window dressing?

ROME (AsiaNews): New laws that came into effect in China on 1 January 2013 provide for people picked up by the police to have immediate access to a lawyer; immediate notification of relatives of their whereabouts; and a limit on detention without trial to six months.

Bernardo Cervellera, from AsiaNews, points out that this should also apply to bishops and priests who have been imprisoned without trial, some for seven years or more. He says that they should be allowed return home or receive visits from their relatives.

He says that both priests and people in Hebei are eagerly awaiting the return of their bishops and priests who have disappeared into police custody, as now Church personnel, who have been detained without trial, have a legal basis on which base a demand for their freedom.

The intention of the reformed penal code is to promote respect for human rights. It includes things like a ban on forcing people to incriminate themselves and says that all arrests must be based on evidence obtained in a legal manner, which means not under torture.

The law also ensures access to a lawyer within 48 hours of the request being made and informing relatives on the circumstances and place of detention.

Moreover during the period of detention, the suspect must be guaranteed adequate diet and sleep. Finally, the police cannot detain a person without charging them for more than six months.

A priest in Hebei told AsiaNews that under these new laws, 80-year-old Bishop James Su Zhimin, from the unofficial Church community in Baoding, who disappeared into police custody 15 years ago, should be able to return home.

The priest said that every year on the anniversary of his disappearance his family asks the police where their relative is being held. The priest says that according to this new reform, this year, they should receive an answer, rather than the usual, “We do not know!”

Cervellera says that this also gives legal hope to 90-year-old Bishop Cosma Shi Enxiang, from the unofficial community in Yixian, as he was arrested by police and has been detained without trial since 2001.

Last year, at least six priests were arrested and sent to labour camps, without being convicted of a crime. The most prominent among other priests who are being held is Father Joseph Lu, the vicar general of the unofficial diocese of Baoding.

He has been missing in the hands of the police since 17 February 2006. His people say they are awaiting his return.

They told AsiaNews, “If he is not released, this would be unfair under the new law. They must at least say where he is being held and grant us the right to go and visit him.”

Other Church figures do not share the enthusiasm of these people in Hebei, as the new legislation does not confirm the independence of the judiciary from the Communist Party, which still oversees the application of each law.

They also point out that in 2004 there was the amendment to the constitution to include the phrase “respect for and protection of human rights.” But since then, nothing has changed.

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