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China media reports psychiatric hospital abuse

December 09, 2008

BEIJING (AP) A Chinese newspaper report alleging authorities locked up people in mental hospitals for criticizing the state and filing complaints about corruption has focused rare attention on the usually taboo topic of psychiatric abuse in China.

An article appearing in the Beijing News on Monday has been widely reproduced by other media and prompted a highly critical editorial Tuesday in the English-language China Daily, a newspaper targeted at foreigners.

According to the Beijing News, Shandong provincial officials in the city of Xintai south of the capital committed people who were seeking to attract the attention of higher authorities to their complaints over local corruption or land seizures.

Some were forced to take psychiatric drugs and all were told they would not be released until they signed pledges to drop their complaints, the paper said.

Those allegations could not immediately be verified independently, but local officials said they were investigating.

A man who answered the phone at Xintai's Communist Party publicity office, who like many Chinese bureaucrats would give only his surname, Xu, said the report was "being dealt with" but said he had no details.

A man at local government headquarters said leaders were "seriously concerned about the report," but refused to give details or his name.

However, the China Daily cited the report as clear evidence that officials had abused their authority.

"Oppressing petitioners is no way to govern or to redress their grievances," said the editorial, beneath the headline "Stop this cruelty."

The Beijing News report was picked up by other state media, including the Web site of the Communist Party's flagship People's Daily.

That marks the first time in years that this issue has been given such a high profile, said Robin Munro, a research associate with the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies.

Munro, who has researched abuse claims extensively, said that could represent a desire to prompt a crackdown on misuse of mental hospitals to silence critics, which he said have grown more popular as other police powers to detain were eliminated.

Despite a lack of publicized official data, evidence collected by civic groups shows local governments routinely use mental hospitals to put critics out of action, break their spirits, and discredit their complaints, Munro said.

Chinese law gives authorities wide-ranging powers to commit people without recourse to lawyers or appeal, making the system ripe for abuse, he said.

The Shandong case is in line "with what I've been tracking in recent years," Munro said.

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