A Beijing court sentenced 10 people to prison Tuesday for illegally detaining citizens trying to take their local grievances to the central government, state media reported, in a possible sign the government is trying to rein in abuses.
Illegal detention of petitioners is believed to be common, but is, like all legal and public order issues in China, a matter of great sensitivity. Such petitioners are frequently intercepted by local government agents and detained illegally in shabby hostels known as "black jails."
The government has recently begun acknowledging the existence of such places as part of modest attempts to stamp out the most glaring abuses of power.
It has also said it will stop handing down labor camp sentences this year under a system that allows police to lock up petitioners, government critics and others for up to four years without a trial, although details are still unclear.
In the case Tuesday, 11 petitioners from central Henan province had traveled to the capital hoping to air their grievances under a system that harkens back to ancient times when Chinese emperors were obligated to hear complaints brought from commoners in the provinces.
Four of the petitioners came to Beijing on April 28, 2012, were intercepted by the defendants and forcefully driven to a rented house where they spent one night before being sent back to Henan, the official Xinhua News Agency said. They then returned to the capital and reported the incident to the police. When officers arrested the defendants on May 2, they also released the other petitioners who had been holed up in a house for up to six days.
A photo on Xinhua's website showed a single-story brick house with a window covered up from the inside and bikes, a sofa and a clothes line sitting in the yard outside.
Xinhua said the seven adult and three juvenile defendants received sentences ranging from two years to six months. It said the defendants - farmers from Henan - rounded up the petitioners and illegally detained them in violation of citizens' personal rights.
The case is "certainly significant, but it's also probably the tip of the iceberg," said Hong Kong-based human rights researcher Joshua Rosenzweig.
The test will be whether this is just a one-off, or "one of a series of cases that will effectively punish the routine detention of petitioners, particularly in Beijing, but in other parts of China as well, and serve as a deterrent to those who might want to do the same in the future," he said.
The defendants were hired by a person called Fu Zhaoxin who is the subject of a separate case, according to Xinhua, but it was unclear who he was.
Beijing's Chaoyang District Court referred calls to the Beijing High Court's foreign affairs office, where calls rang unanswered. Calls to Wen Yu He court, a sub-branch of Chaoyang court where the verdict was reportedly announced, also were not answered.
Stopping people from traveling to Beijing to complain has become a priority for local officials, who are graded for promotion in part on their ability to keep the peace.
While Beijing is home to some of the most notorious black jails, such illegal holding pens are found throughout China. Petitioners report being held in run-down hotels, disused government offices, schools and, at least in one instance, a Red Cross office.
They are a part of a policing system that goes under the euphemism "stability maintenance" and that has expanded massively over the past decade. Designed to weed out any threats to Communist Party rule, funding for "stability maintenance" has exceeded the national defense budget for the past two years, reaching 702 billion yuan, or $110 billion, last year. Payouts fund not just the regular criminal justice system but also ordinary citizens to watch potential trouble-makers, bounty hunters hired by local governments to catch petitioners heading to Beijing and black jails to hold them.
The three youths sentenced Tuesday were hired to watch the petitioners, according to a posting on the Southern Metropolis Daily's official micro-blog. They were given sentences of six to 10 months in jail, suspended for a year, the posting said.
Petitioners themselves are skeptical that the Chinese leadership wants to stop the abuses, and if it does, whether a law enforcement system grown used to having its way can change.
"What the government says and what the government does are two different things," said Tian Lan, a former police officer turned petitioner. "They say they are concerned about petitioners and want to protect their rights, but they arrest you and put you in black jails."
Tian lost her job 10 years ago in the northern city of Handan after exposing corruption in a county police district. Turned over to that county's police, she was jailed and tortured for a year and ever since she has been petitioning and periodically detained. She was held in an old factory on Beijing's southern edges in November, rounded up in a sweep of petitioners ahead of the Communist Party Congress to install Xi Jinping and other new leaders.
"Xi Jinping may be a good person," said Tian. "But can his commands be heard outside the walls of Zhongnanhai" - the leadership compound in Beijing.
AP writer Charles Hutzler and researcher Flora Ji contributed to this report.