The 21 Indian traders who were arrested in southern China more than six months ago on diamond-smuggling charges, but are still awaiting trial, may have to wait at least another two months before discovering their fate.
Prosecutors in the southern port city of Shenzhen last week obtained permission from the local court to extend the period for investigating the case by two months beyond the stipulated July 12 deadline for formally filing charges, according to the families of those detained.
It is not unusual for authorities in China to indefinitely hold those accused of crimes without filing any charges, but legal experts and officials said it was uncommon for authorities to keep foreigners in detention for so long without charging them for any crime. The traders have now served more than 200 days in detention, but are still unaware of whether they are even guilty of the alleged crimes.
The traders from Mumbai and Gujarat were among 33 foreigners who were arrested on January 8, during a raid by customs authorities in Shenzhen. Chinese officials allege the traders were part of a smuggling ring, which illegally brought in diamonds worth $7.3 million into China from Hong Kong. But almost seven months on, authorities have seemingly been unable to gather enough evidence to present to the local court, seeking repeated extensions for investigations that have angered the traders' families.
“It has been almost seven months, and they still haven't even told us why they are being held,” the wife of one of those arrested told The Hindu in an interview. She requested anonymity, fearful of jeopardising her husband's case having been warned by her lawyers and Chinese authorities against speaking out.
“Now we are being told two more months for investigations,” she added.
“So far, there has been no evidence, no information and not even a chance to file a petition for bail.”
Consul General in Guangzhou, Indra Mani Pandey, met officials from Shenzhen customs two weeks ago to ask authorities to speed up investigations. Indian officials made the point that such a long detention period was unusual for an economic offence. Consular officials have, so far, made four visits to the detention centre.
The case was also raised by External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna when he visited Beijing in April. Indian officials have been reluctant to publicly push Chinese officials to speed up the case, citing examples where such an approach tended to harden the Chinese government's position.
Officials said it was likely that charges would be filed before the end of the month, and they were assured that last week's extension would be the last. But sources said the trial process could take another three months, and it may even be until the end of the year before the traders are sentenced.
The families were allowed to visit the detention centre on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. This was only the second visit allowed for families since the January 8 arrests. They were given 20 minutes at the Mei Li detention centre, and told to converse in English, which posed a problem for some of the families, from Gujarat, who are not fluent in English. Chinese authorities were present.
Officials at the Foreign Ministry here have said the “legal rights” of the traders would be protected, but have little released information besides saying investigations were progressing.
The families have complained of worsening conditions at the centre, particularly with the quality of food, and of health problems for some of those detained.
Many of the traders are from the Jain community, and are vegetarians.
“We are paying the detention centre up to 1000 yuan (around Rs. 7,000) a month for food, but they are being served food in a bucket,” said the wife of the trader. “My husband has lost between 15 and 18 kg, and is in poor health. He is only getting rice and some vegetables, and many of them say the quantity is not enough.”
She added: “This is not a prison. This is supposed to be a detention centre for people who have not even been found guilty of any crime.”
She said the Indian traders were also being asked to perform “guard duties” for two to three hours a day, monitoring other detenus. Duty times could be even in the middle of the night. If they fell asleep, they were “punished” by being forced to serve extra hours, often in the middle of the night.
Customs authorities in Shenzhen could not be reached for comment to verify the claims.
The families of the traders say they have been left with little information. As is often the case in China's opaque legal system, lawyers can be barred from disclosing information to their clients, and face punishments for doing so.
“The only thing that the lawyers tell us,” said the wife of the trader, “is that they don't know anything, and that they can't help us”.