Ten people have been jailed for allegedly detaining citizens trying to lodge complaints against Chinese authorities, state media said Tuesday.

The defendants were sentenced to between six months and two years for illegally detaining 11 petitioners from Henan province for several days in April last year, Xinhua News Agency said.

The court in Beijing said they violated the “infringed the personal rights of the 11 petitioners, which constituted the crime of false imprisonment”. The defendants were also ordered to pay compensation to those they had detained.

Under China’s ancient petitioning system, individuals can raise local grievances such as land disputes and unpaid wages to the central government. But these petitioners are often seen as an embarrassment to local officials who hire “interceptors” to detain them in “black jails”.

The Chinese government until recently denied the existence of such detentions, but has started to acknowledge the practice, according to the BBC which said that Beijing had first launched a crackdown on “black jails” in December 2011.

However, whether the case indicates a step towards guaranteeing petitioners’ rights remains unclear.

“It remains to be seen whether this is the first in a series of cases like this, in which case we will look back at this as a significant step,” Hong Kong-based human rights researcher Joshua Rosenzweig told AFP.