China is making plans to legalise state-backed "disappearances" of the kind endured by the maverick artist Ai Weiwei earlier this year, in a move which lawyers and human rights advocates have described as "terrifying".
Amendments to China's house arrest laws would allow prisoners to be detained in secret locations and without their families being informed, according to proposals published this week on the website of China's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress.
Under current Chinese law suspects can be placed under six months house arrest, but they must usually be held in their own homes, unless they have no fixed address.
But under the new rules Chinese police will be allowed to hold suspects incognito if they suspected them of involvement in terrorism, endangering state security, or if keeping them in their own homes would "interfere with investigations".
In practice, warn Chinese lawyers and international rights groups, the provisions will give the police a legal fig-leaf for the disappearance of enemies of the ruling Communist Party which includes anyone considered subversive or a threat to state security.
"This is in complete contravention of international standards," said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher on China for Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group based in New York, "One of the key principles of international human rights law is deprivation of freedom can only take place if it has been decided by the court." Zhang Peihong, a well-known Chinese criminal defense lawyer who defended Australian national Stern Hu in last year's Rio Tinto industrial espionage and fraud case, described the developments as "terrifying".
"Residential surveillance [house arrest], in my experience, has basically become a synonym for disguised detention. Many suspects would rather be arrested and sent to detention centers, rather than sleep with police investigators or even military police," he wrote on his microblog.
"The draft further intensifies the original provisions, in effect legalizing past mistakes. Already this year we've seen the harm caused by this provision in a number of individual cases. Put simply: it's extremely terrifying." This week, the artist Ai Weiwei gave a flavour of that terror and frustration when he wrote the experience of his own 81-day detention which began when he was detained at Beijing's international airport on April 4 as he tried to board a flight to Hong Kong.
It was not until 43 days later that Ai's wife, Lu Qing, was granted a 20 minutes visit with her husband, ostensibly to quash internet rumours that he was being tortured.
"Only your family is crying out that you're missing. But you can't get answers from the street communities or officials, or even at the highest levels, the court or the police or the head of the nation," Ai wrote of his experience in Newsweek. "My wife has been writing these kinds of petitions every day, making phone calls to the police station every day. Where is my husband? Just tell me where my husband is. There is no paper, no information." China's official Xinhua news agency rejected the criticisms, saying that proposed amendments would "further help protect human rights, and conforms rather than contradicts international conventions", citing more legal scholars.
It added that new rules allowing police to detain suspects incognito, "were an exception, and will not become regular", quoting Song Yinghui, a law professor at Beijing Normal University.