China may be in the middle of a massive corruption crackdown while trumpeting a new emphasis on the "rule of law," but barbaric abuse remains standard practice in police cells across the country, according to a major new report.
NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) has collected dozens of testimonies from people detained by police who recounted torture and serious mistreatment during interrogations and pre-trial detention, alongside interviews with family members, lawyers, and former officials. It found police abuse is still a major problem despite reforms that were instigated by the Chinese government in 2009 and 2010 following a public outcry over law enforcement brutality.
Detainees have been forced to spend days shackled to "tiger chairs," hung by the wrists, and treated abusively by "cell bosses" — fellow detainees who oversee cells for the police.
Gu Daoying, who runs a gambling parlor in Zhejiang province, told HRW he was tortured after being taken into custody: "[They] handcuffed both my hands and beat me, hitting, and kicking was the least of it all," he said. "[One police officer] used an electric baton to hit me for six to seven hours, more than a hundred times. I fainted many times, and lost control over urination. Later he put his police baton on the floor and forced me to kneel on it for three hours."
Another suspect said police "wrapped a cloth around my wrists then they handcuffed me, they tied a rope to the chain between the handcuffs and hung me on the pulley on the ceiling, my toes barely touching the ground. They shocked my hands with an electric baton, and they even stuck the baton into my right-hand pocket to hit my genitals... I could not take it after about seven or eight minutes so I begged them to let me down so I could think things through."
A third suspect, Zhang Chun, told HRW: "They covered my mouth, and poured chili oil into my nostril, it ran inside and everywhere on my nose, mouth, and face."
A man in his 30s, Yu Zhenglu, said that after being accused of money laundering he was detained and refused food or medication for four days, even though he has high blood pressure. "They also didn't let me sleep for four days and four nights," he said. "The police changed shifts every four hours, and as soon as you close your eyes, they push you."
'They describe police using towels, books, helmets, or other items to cushion the site of injury, so as to create intense pain but leave no visible marks.'
Beijing-based lawyer Shen Mingde said there were "countless" forms of torture are still being used. "For example, it's cold in northeast China, so the police take off all the person's clothes, string him up and beat him, hitting his anus and genitalia with electric batons, slap him on his face, beat, and kick him."
Some lawyers told HRW that police had become much more sophisticated in their torture techniques, using methods that left little or no physical trace. "They describe police using towels, books, helmets, or other items to cushion the site of injury, so as to create intense pain but leave no visible marks," said the report.
China's justice system facilitates police abuse, said HRW, with officers able to hold suspects for 37 days before bringing them in front of a judge. Between 70 and 90 percent of people detained have no lawyer, and lawyers are not allowed to be present during interrogations. There is also a lack of access to doctors and family members.
Maya Wang, a China researcher with HRW, told VICE News that aside from the horrific accounts of abuse, the widespread "lack of accountability" was shocking. "In all the cases and with all the people we've spoken with there is basically no accountability with the police officers," she said. "In some cases the police officers are promoted, in other cases they're simply shifted to a different position."
China ratified the United Nations Convention Against Torture in 1988, and launched official campaigns to curb torture in the 1990s. In 2009 and 2010, it brought in legislative and regulatory reforms following a public outcry over revelations of police brutality. The use of "cell bosses" was forbidden and an "exclusionary rule" was introduced which prohibited the use of evidence obtained through torture.
The Ministry of Public Security, which has responsibility for the police, claimed that the use of coerced confessions has dropped significantly as a result of the reforms. But HRW examined around 158,000 court verdicts published between January 1 and April 30, 2014, and found suspects alleged being tortured by police in 423 cases. Of those cases, just 23 had evidence thrown out and none resulted in an acquittal.
Meanwhile, the theme of the Communist Party's central committee's closed-door annual meeting last October was rule of law, which the government promised would be fully established by 2020. Chinese President Xi Jinping launched a huge anti-corruption campaign after taking power, which resulted in official charges being issued against former top security official Zhou Yongkang. In November this year, the country is scheduled to appear before the Committee against Torture.
Wang told VICE News: "Given there is such a high-level commitment against wrongful convictions — because they want to restore public confidence in the justice system — there should be greater political will to introduce some accountability."
According to Wang, the report proves that recent reforms have effectively failed to "eliminate routine torture" of suspects in police custody. Instead, she said: "What we have seen is the police have adapted to these measures."
"We think that the changes to the law are changes which are grafted onto a fundamentally abusive criminal justice system that — after these changes — the use of torture still remains a serious problem. There are some elements fundamental to the Chinese criminal system which are quite shocking for the lack of protections. For example, police can hold suspects for a maximum of 37 days… That kind of prolonged detention without seeing a prosecutor affords the police a lot of opportunity to abuse suspects."
In one rare case of public accountability in 2010, the Chinese government was forced to pay out compensation after the murder victim of 57-year-old Zhao Zuohai, who was serving a jail sentence, appeared alive. Zhao claimed that police had beaten and tortured him into a confessing to a crime that he ended up serving 11 years for. His wife had remarried during his imprisonment, while several of his children had been adopted by other families.
Wang told VICE News that one of the factors hindering full reform was the Communist Party's fear that they would lose control of the Chinese public. "As long as the judiciary is under Party control and the Party has the incentives to keep political stability in the region and depend on the police to uphold that stability, then the police will still be given a lot of leeway to do whatever they want to do in order to crack crimes and rely on confessions," she said.
She also noted that the report hadn't included any interviews with former prisoners in Tibet or Xinjiang, as well as excluding political prisoners, who HRW believe "suffer from more serious abuses and more violations of criminal procedure."
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