November 15th, 2012
05:54 AM GMT
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Shanghai (CNN) - The only souvenir that Xie Jinghua has from her stay at a Holiday Inn Express located in a vast tourism park alongside the East China Sea is a room key.

The 52-year-old said she was not able to buy any of the beach toys in the lobby, walk around a lake nearby, or enjoy the ocean just outside of her window. Xie was there, she said, because she was forced to be – held in a hotel room for eight days after she and her 56-year-old husband, Ma Haiming, traveled to Beijing in March to protest the compensation they were given for the demolition of the family's farmhouse to make way for the expansion of Shanghai's PudongInternationalAirport in 2005. When the couple arrived in Beijing, Xie said they were picked up by plain clothes police and forced to travel hundreds of miles back to Shanghai, then held separately at the hotel.

"I really felt quite sick inside," said Xie, who now lives in a tiny apartment near the airport where her son works as a janitor. Xie said she tried to escape from her third floor hotel room on March 10 via its balcony but was stopped by at least seven guards who, she said, "put me on the bed and used the bedspread" to hold her down. She said she stole the room key when a guard was not looking.

Xie and her husband were not alone. Three other people have told CNN they were held against their will at the Holiday Inn Express Nanhuizui – located in Lingang New City on the outskirts of Shanghai – to keep them from airing grievances to the central government during the 10-day annual meeting of China's legislature in March. The hotel management and owners deny their claims.

But people being detained without charge is nothing new in China, according to Human Rights Watch, which says authorities use hotels, homeless shelters, mental health facilities, farmhouses and obscure government compounds as so-called "black jails" - unofficial prisons where Chinese officials hold citizens without charge.

However activists say this is the first time a facility run by a western company has been allegedly used for these unofficial detentions.

"I have not come across an American branded hotel being used as a black jail," said Phelim Kine, a senior Asia researcher with the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "That is a first, and it is noteworthy."

The InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), the UK-based firm that owns the Holiday Inn Express brand, said there was no indication that guests at the hotel were being held against their will last March.

"We have found no evidence which would confirm these accusations or any sign that the hotel owner knew or cooperated with (the) government on this hotel stay and the hotel is operated in accordance with PRC [People's Republic of China] local laws and regulations," IHG said in a statement, noting that it had conducted a "thorough investigation" of the allegations. "As you'll appreciate, we can't provide details of the booking or guests due to privacy laws."

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