346 Days in Jail

The following is a translation of a piece from the Chinese-language service of France’s RFI about the long and painful saga Chinese journalist Liu Hu has faced since his detention in August 2013 for blowing the whistle on official corruption. The original interview was by RFI’s Shanghai correspondent, Cao Guoxing (曹国星).

On September 10, journalist Liu Hu (刘虎) received a document from the hand of a prosecutor from the Dongcheng District Procuratorate in Beijing: “Decision on Non-Prosecution.” As Liu Hu tells it, after reciting the contents of the Decision, the prosecutor said he hoped Liu Hu could continue making contributions to society through his professional work.

An incurable user of the internet, [Liu Hu] quickly posted a photo [of the Decision] to Sina Weibo, and shared it with his friends on WeChat. Words of congratulation came just as quickly from every direction imaginable.

By the time this news [of the Decision] came it had already been two years since Liu Hu was taken from his home in Chongqing on August 23, 2013, and held in Beijing. From his placement under formal criminal custody early morning on August 24, 2013, to his release on bail on August 3, 2014, Liu Hu had spent 346 days under police detention.

Some of Liu Hu’s colleagues have praised him, saying that true gold fears not the fire. But the idea that one can spend a year behind bars simply for making a post on Sina Weibo still rattles the nerves.

Liu Hu recalled to this reporter: “It was after 11AM on August 23, 2013, that someone knocked on my door and said there was a water leak and they wanted to have a look. I opened the door and 14 or 15 of them came in. Once they were in they restrained me and showed me a document for mandatory summons (强制传唤). I was led away in handcuffs and taken directly to the interrogation room of a relevant department in the Northern New District of Chongqing City.”

“They began interrogating me after I was taken to the Public Security Bureau, asking me mostly about the complaint I had submitted about certain officials. They mentioned the names of Ma Zhengqi (马正其), Song Lin (宋林), Du Hangwei (杜航伟), Cui Yadong (崔亚东) and others. They asked why I had made the post on Weibo, and what was the source of my information. I responded truthfully, but they insisted I admit to my guilt and error. If I refused, they said, they would have to take me back [to Beijing].”

Liu Hu insisted there was no crime to which he could confess, and the interrogation carried on until deep into the night.

Early in the morning on August 24, 2013, a police official came from Beijing and announced that Liu Hu’s mandatory summons had officially become a criminal detention (刑事拘留). He replaced the local investigating officer and the interrogation continued.

Liu Hu was by this time exhausted, but the police official prodded him with a bottle of water and the questioning continued. At the time he was taken from his home, Liu Hu had been wearing only a short-sleeved casual shirt. The police official turned the temperature on the air-conditioning unit down to 21 degrees Celsius, and at one point Liu Hu dozed off to sleep for about an hour before the extreme cold woke him and the interrogation continued.

The next day, Liu Hu was taken by train to Beijing. For this purpose the police arranged for a sleeper car. The officer on the case took along his notebook computer and a portable printer, and for much of the journey Liu Hu was again subjected to interrogation.

Looking back, it seems the likely goal of the police was to obtain a confession in the case before Liu Hu had an opportunity to meet with his a lawyer. But things were not so smooth.

Once they reached Beijing, Liu Hu was sent off to the Beijing No. 1 Detention Centre, a city-level facility generally used for repeat offenders.

Liu Hu’s prison room was a so-called “Civilised Unit” (文明号) that police had arranged ahead of time. In the room were two prisoners . . . the police had entrusted to supervise Liu Hu.

The prison room was very crowded. At times there were 12 or 13 prisoners in the room, but at peak times there could be as many as 28. Everyone was to sleep on cots, but during crowded times some had to sleep on the floor.

Liu Hu recalls that although some of the prisoners with whom he shared a room were hardened criminals, including murderers, they were all quite respectful toward him. The two “monitors” (牢头) would always sleep in the best position, cots No. 1 and No. 2 closest to the door. Liu Hu was allowed to sleep on cot No. 3, and never once was he made to sleep on the floor. Nor was he ever beaten.

In order to exert greater pressure on Liu Hu to give up his sources, the broadcasts of the official “Nightly Newscast” on China Central Television typically arranged for his prison room were suspended for the first few months, and the usual copy of Beijing Daily was similarly prohibited.

These deprivations were a source of bitterness for his cellmates, who constantly gnashed their teeth and hoped he would be able to leave soon.

As Liu Hu remained in the detention centre, there were quite a number of solidarity actions on the outside. Many people traveled to Beijing hoping to be able to visit him, or deposited money into his prison account so he might be able to buy extra snacks. As was routine at the detention centre, Liu Hu would receive notice of these [visits and deposits].

Knowing that people, some of whom didn’t even know him, were depositing money on his behalf, further steeled Liu Hu’s resolve. But the authorities began to feel that he was under insufficient pressure — so they arbitrarily changed the rules, no longer permitting deposits from those who were not Liu’s relatives. When his lawyer, Zhou Ze (周泽), tried to deposit funds, even he was not allowed to do so.

The food in Beijing No. 1 Detention Centre was terrible. The standard was eight yuan a day, and so for meals every day there were only vegetables with no oil at all, served with rice or a single dumpling.

There were muslims in the Beijing facility too, but the management was neglectful in its preparation for halal meals, so every prisoner inside Beijing No. 1 Detention Centre was essentially halal-ed — deprived of any pork whatsoever. Only every 10 days or so would there be some potato and maybe a spot of beef or fish.

Liu Hu was released from jail after 346 days. His body weight had dropped from 160 pounds to just 126 pounds, a loss of almost 40 pounds. Liu Hu’s year in custody had consisted mostly of lengthy interrogations.

After entering Beijing No. 1 Detention Centre, he was subjected to a tight schedule of questioning sessions, numbering more than 70 in total, the longest lasting around 11 hours. Many of these were arranged for late at night, and only after repeated complaints had been lodged were arrangements made for daytime interrogations.

The Beijing police had brought along from Liu Hu’s Chongqing home all of his reporting notebooks spanning his more than ten-year journalism career. It is rumoured they assembled a special case team of around 100 members. The agents were dispatched all over the country, seeking out people Liu Hu had interviewed over the years — their chief question being whether or not these contacts had made any payments to Liu Hu. Their hope, clearly, was to achieve any sort of breakthrough that might establish Liu’s guilt.

The charges police eventually presented to prosecutors alleged that Liu Hu was guilty of the crimes of libel and blackmail, as well as “picking quarrels and causing trouble.”

Liu Hu recalls that the police on the case, “in order to chat with him, would brush up their knowledge of journalists, getting to know the industry, and would talk with me about the actor KK, the [deceased] journalist Mu Qing and other people like that, hoping I would follow their examples.”

The police officials said they hoped that Liu Hu would “do things that were meaningful for the people, but [stressed that] I should not have shared information the way I had.”

Liu Hu recalls that the police interrogators gave him strong assurances that if he admitted his guilt he would get a lighter sentence, probation or perhaps even walk free. But never once did he admit any guilt.

Each time he was questioned, and even when police barged into his home, the entire proceedings were captured on video. Judging from the situation [in recent months and years], it seems [to Liu Hu’s mind] that if he had admitted guilt, this would have been quickly edited into a news item and broadcast on China Central Television.

Of course, police told him this video material would be provided instead to “leaders” who after quick deliberation were sure to demand leniency.

Liu Hu recalls how police warned him that if he did not confess his guilt, his sentence would be harsh and he could expect to spend many years in jail — so that when he was finally released he would have nothing, and his family would all by that time have “departed.”

“It was at such times,” Liu Hu told this reporter, “that I would feel at my weakest and most helpless.”

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