April 8, 2009 / 9:05 AM / 10 years ago

China petitioners denounce "mentally ill" label

BEIJING (Reuters) - Angry Chinese petitioners descended on Peking University on Wednesday, protesting against comments by a prominent psychiatrist who branded them mentally ill.

A petitioner sits on the ground as Chinese policemen and security officers try to remove her from the entrance of Peking University in Beijing, April 8, 2009. REUTERS/Reinhard Krause

But even as they arrived, police and security officers hauled them away as they shouted their complaints.

Sun Dongdong, head of the university’s judicial expertise center, ignited public anger by suggesting that 99 percent of people who repeatedly petitioned the government were mentally ill. The center helps judicial authorities evaluate a person’s mental health.

Sun later said some of his words were used out of context by the media and misinterpreted by the public. Sun said he did not say 99 percent of all “professional petitioners” in the country were mentally ill — only 99 percent of “those whom he had met.”

“I extend my sincere, deep apology to those people whose feelings are hurt,” Sun said in a statement sent to the China Daily.

At least 100 middle-aged and old petitioners demonstrated at the prestigious university, shouting out complaints against Sun and publicizing their own grievances.

“They (corrupt officials) beat me and left me disabled, and knocked out four of my teeth. They are cruel. And now Sun Dongdong says that we petitioners are mentally ill,” said protester Xu Jiajiao from eastern Zhejiang province. “But it’s the professor who is mentally ill.”

State petitioning offices have for decades offered a rare official channel for ordinary people to vent complaints, a system that reaches back to ancient times, when subjects could petition the emperor and his officials.

Liu Feiyue, who runs his own one-man human rights advocacy center in central China’s Hubei province, was one of the first to raise an outcry against Sun’s statement. Liu organized a petition criticizing the professor.

“His views were too absurd and irresponsible,” Liu said by telephone. “We all believed that if he wasn’t rebutted, then his views could be used to justify detaining more petitioners in psychiatric hospitals.”

The detention of petitioners and protesters in these hospitals has attracted criticism from rights activists and international psychiatric groups in past years.

Some Chinese experts have insisted that quite a few long-time petitioners suffer obsessive disorders and other problems. But critics say they rarely present any danger to themselves or others and should not be forcibly held in hospitals.

Liu said some petitioners were indeed extraordinarily persistent. But that was no justification for forcibly detaining them in hospitals, often without telling their families, he said.

Journeys to the capital for petitioners are risky and mostly futile. Police from distant provinces lurk around the petitions offices in the capital, waiting to whisk complainants from their home areas into detention before they can shame local leaders.

Additional reporting by Chris Buckley; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Ben Blanchard

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