My 16-day terror in Chinese jail thanks to visa glitch
SA woman endured a living hell as family and friends tried desperately to find her
For Madre van den Heever, April 24 began as an ordinary day at her kindergarten in Chaoyung, China, but it was to end with her stripped, put in a prison uniform and her feet cuffed to a steel chair, while being interrogated.
The qualified teacher was to disappear into the penal system for 16 days, as family and Chinese friends tried desperately to find her.
Van den Heever, her husband Etienne and her two-year-old son Benji “absolutely loved China” where they lived and taught English for eight months.But then she and an American colleague were arrested as they were working at a school that was not the one the school’s owner had registered them to work at.
She claims she didn’t know this as the work visas were in Chinese and were kept by her boss.For four days, her family didn’t know where she was. Her husband phoned the South Africa embassy in Beijing many times a day but said he didn’t get much assistance for the first week.
Eventually a lawyer helped track her down and was allowed to see her.
Back in Johannesburg her brother-in-law Gavin Wertheimer approached the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco), which was “exceptional and diligent”.
It convinced the SA Embassy in China to pay her a visit, nine days into her ordeal.
She was released after 16 days although she was initially told she would be kept for 10 days.
Her family would go back if they could, but she has been blacklisted for five years, she said.
They have been been living in Alberton since their return on May 10.Of the conditions in prison, Van den Heever said detainees were made to sit all day on stools, with tiny bumps that caused pain. They were only allowed to stand up to use the toilet.
Both her phone and its password were given to police. She and her American colleague were separated.
The small cell had nine “beds” which were steel frames with wooden planks for the 11 detainees.
For two hours each night, two of the detainees would stand and observe the others sleep for compulsory suicide watch duty. “If you could commit suicide with a plastic spoon, everyone in there would. They do everything to break you.”
Van den Heever’s advice to South Africans in China is to ensure they see their working visa paperwork and translate it with an app, in order to obtain their work address.
Dirco spokesperson Ndivhuwo Mabaya confirmed Van den Heever received consular assistance while in detention.
“In recent times, it has been noted that a number of South Africans do not always adhere to the conditions of the work visa they receive when applying to work abroad.”Associate Professor Lucas Muntingh of the Dullah Omar Centre and Civil Society Prison Reform Initiative said: “If the story is true, it is indeed a violation of the global Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment that China ratified in 1988.”
However, Muntingh said South African prison toilets had no doors either for security reasons.
Xie Yancun, second secretary at the Chinese embassy in Pretoria, said they welcomed South Africans to continue to come to work and do business in China.
“Last year we issued 1,200 work visas to South Africans. The Embassy in Beijing suggests that 12,000 South Africans are currently teaching English in China.”
He added foreigners have to work at the same place their visa states. “The law regulates this and is in line with international practice.
“South Africans must use an interpreter to ensure the work permit has the correct address, and the correct employee position.
“All foreigners in detention centres are treated equally,” he added.
Human Rights Watch spokesperson Maya Wang said: “Police torture and ill-treatment of suspects in pretrial detention in China remains a serious problem.”