Audio Transcript:

MARCO WERMAN: China's troubled record on human rights may also be on the agenda, and a new report from the group Human Rights Watch could add to US concerns. The report says China operates dozens of secret detention centers known as "black jails." These jails are said to hold people whose only crime is trying to get help from the central government. The World's Jeb Sharp reports.

JEB SHARP: The Human Rights Watch report is based on interviews with 38 people who set out to petition the government and wound up in jail.

PHELIM KINE: Petitioners are people who come from the countryside looking for legal redress for problems at the grassroots, ranging from corruption or illegal land seizure to police brutality. And these petitioners very often end up in these black jails.

SHARP: That's Human Rights Watch researcher Phelim Kine.

KINE: Black jails by definition are illegal. They're unlawful. They're off the books.

SHARP: In fact Human Rights Watch says they're not even real jails. They're hidden away in places like hotels and nursing homes. British Journalist Aiden Hartley managed to visit one of the sites.

AIDEN HARTLEY: There was an iron gate, and a courtyard, off which there were cells and the people that we immediately saw coming out of these cells said that they were sleeping 20 to 30 thirty to a room, and they said that they were being beaten thoroughly. One of them was so badly treated that she couldn't stand up. There were elderly people. There was one handicapped person. There were even children. And they were being guarded by men in black uniforms who looked like storm troopers.

SHARP: Despite the evidence, China rejected the allegations today. Here's foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang.

QIN GANG: [speaking Japanese]

SHARP: "I can assure you there are no black jails in China." Chin Gang declared. "The Chinese government practices according to the guideline of put-people-first and serve-for-people," he went on. "If a citizen has a comment or proposal to the government, that citizen should raise it through legal and normal channels and their legal rights will be protected." But Minky Worden, media director for Human Rights Watch, says the evidence for the existence of these jails is clear.

MINKY WORDEN: This report not only relies on direct testimony from 38 former black jail detainees, but it also draws on Chinese government, academic research and studies by domestic human rights organizations, also accounts in the domestic Chinese media. So it's a phenomenon that is well-known and understood, and that we're trying to change.

SHARP: The system of secret jails apparently dates back to 2003 when the Chinese government abolished a law that allowed authorities to detain non-residents and vagrants. But the practice didn't end, it simply went underground. Again, Aiden Hartley.

HARTLEY: The authorities didn't want "complainers" as they called them on the street. And so they were literally cleaning them up off the streets, stuffing them in these black jails where the inmates said they might be held for up to several weeks at a time before being bused back to the provinces.

SHARP: According to the Human Rights Watch report the system of black jails is kept afloat by a network of people who have a financial interest in perpetuating it. The government rewards local officials who keep the number of petitioners from their regions to a minimum. Those local officials are allegedly colluding with illegal jailers to kidnap would-be petitioners. The results would seem to make a mockery of China's official policy of encouraging citizens to speak out. For The World, I'm Jeb Sharp.