An investigation has been launched into a newspaper report claiming that at least 18 people from Shandong province were detained in hospitals for the mentally ill after filing petitions in Beijing, the State Bureau for Letters and Calls said on Monday.
A bureau official, who refused to be named, told China Daily the Shandong government is looking into the claim.
"We will release the results as soon as possible," he said.
According to a report in yesterday's Beijing News, at least 18 people from the city of Xintai, Shandong, have been detained in mental hospitals over the past two years for making repeated appeals to authorities in the capital to handle local disputes.
They were released only after signing documents "admitting" they were mentally ill and on condition they would not petition again, the report said.
Calls to the Xintai bureau of letters and calls went unanswered yesterday, while an official from the city government's publicity department declined to comment.
In one of the reported cases, Sun Fawu, a 57-year-old retired miner from the village of Dagouqiao in Xintai, was detained at the Yiyang mental hospital for three months and five days last year.
During his stay, he was given medication every day, he said.
"My head was always dizzy and I couldn't even stand up," Sun was quoted as saying.
Prior to his detention, Sun had spent several years appealing for compensation for the damage caused to his land by a local coal mine, the report said. He was released on Oct 17 last year, after signing a document agreeing not to petition again, the report said.
Another man, an 84-year-old surnamed Shi, said he was sent to a mental hospital in 2006 after going to Beijing to complain about how a dispute with his neighbor had been handled.
During his 17-month stay he identified "at least 18 people" who had been sent to the hospital for filing complaints in Beijing, the report said.
Wu Yuzhu, the hospital's director, confirmed that all of the people on Shi's list had been admitted, it said.
An Shizhi, head of the letters and visits office in Quangou, Shandong, said officials were under pressure to keep petitioner numbers down, the report said.
On Nov 9, a notice was posted on the website of the Xintai petitions office advising officials how to deal with complaints.
"Show care for mentally ill petitioners and send those who are not of sound mind to hospital for treatment," it said.
Qiu Baochang, a lawyer with the Beijing Lawyers' Association, told China Daily on Monday that if petitioners are not mentally ill it is against the law for authorities to detain them.
"The government should set up a people-oriented policy to meet residents' needs, and not try to shut them up," he said.