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The Guardian: Torture still routine in Chinese jails, Human Rights Watch report finds

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Guardian
Emma Graham-Harrison in Beijing
Tuesday 12 May 201522.19 EDT
Last modified on Tuesday 12 May 201522.31 EDT

Human Rights Watch report says detainees electrocuted, shackled to chairs, starved and deprived of sleep to elicit confessions

Torture is still routine in Chinese jails, with police flouting regulations and courts ignoring rules designed to exclude evidence and confessions obtained by mistreatment, a report by Human Rights Watch has warned.

Detainees, their relatives and lawyers said abuse included prisoners being beaten and electrocuted with batons, deprived of sleep, shackled in painful positions and hung from their wrists.

Some have been sprayed with chilli oil in sensitive areas, deprived of sleep and water, starved and frozen.

A paramilitary policeman guards a tower on the barb-wired
wall of the Number One Detention Centre in Beijing.
(Photograph: Alexander F. Yuan/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
The study, Tiger Chairs and Cell Bosses: Police Torture of Criminal Suspects in China, is based on hundreds of newly published court verdicts from around the country, and interviews with nearly 50 people on all sides of the justice system – those jailed, their relatives and lawyers, prosecutors and other officials.

Human Rights Watch also interviewed families of four people who died in detention. The police said all deaths were due to natural causes, despite evidence of neglect and mistreatment. Relatives were blocked in efforts to see full videos of their detention or commission independent autopsies.

“Torture to extract confession has become an unspoken rule, it is very common,” one former police officer from northern Heilongjiang province told Human Rights Watch in February 2014.

The report also included several accounts of mistreatment, including shackling to the ‘tiger chairs’ of the title, which are used to keep detainees immobile for days at a time.

“I sat on an iron chair all day, morning and night, my hands and legs were buckled ,” one woman held this way for weeks told the group.

“During the day I could nap on the chair, but when the cadres came, they scolded the police for letting me doze off… I sat until my buttocks bled.”

After several high profile cases of police brutality in 2009 and 2010, China promised reforms to reduce miscarriages of justice and torture.

These include videotaping some interrogations, banning the use of brutal inmates as “cell bosses” to control other detainees through violence and a new rule banning evidence obtained through torture.

The government claims the reforms led to a significant drop in the use of forced confessions in 2012.

Abuse in pre-trial detention centres did fall, Human Rights Watch said, but police appeared to have responded to new rules by shifting torture to other areas with less strict monitoring including police stations, hostels and drug rehabilitation centres they control.

“The period between when suspects are apprehended and when they are taken to a detention centre is a period with high incidence of torture,” the report quoted procurator Wu Yanwu saying in article posted on a Beijing legal affairs website.

Police have also learned to administer beatings and other torture in ways that left few or no marks but still caused significant suffering, the report said, and there was little sign of courts excluding evidence obtained by torture or holding abusive officials to account.

“Despite several years of reform, police are torturing criminal suspects to get them to confess to crimes and courts are convicting people who confessed under torture,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.

“Unless and until suspects have lawyers at interrogations and other basic protections and until police are held accountable for abuse, these new measures are unlikely to eliminate routine torture.”

In a national database which is not an exhaustive list of cases, or definitive record of torture allegations, Human Rights Watch found over 430 cases in which defendants said they had been mistreated.

The judge threw out evidence in only 23 cases and none of the trials ended in acquittal. There was only one prosecution of police officers for using torture and none served prison time.

Most of the torture cases uncovered by Human Rights Watch were of suspects charged with theft, robbery and drug sales, but several lawyers said abuse was particularly common and severe for people caught up in high-profile murder and corruption trial-linked cases.

“These crimes have been specifically targeted for crackdowns by the central government in recent years because they tend to attract widespread public condemnation and attention,” the report said.

“Lawyers we interviewed said that in these ‘major cases’, there is political pressure coming from the top to solve them, thus further weakening any procedural protections – however limited – that otherwise might exist in Chinese criminal law for the defendants.”

The UN will review China’s progress on eliminating torture later this year, and Human Rights Watch called on Beijing to make “fundamental reforms” to the Chinese system, including cutting the length of time suspects can be held before seeing a judge – currently over a month – and setting up an independent commission to investigate allegations of police abuse.

It warned unless the government is willing to give more power to defence lawyers and independent monitors, “the elimination of routine torture and ill-treatment is unlikely”.

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