Over the past five years, China contends it has made significant advances in protecting the rights of suspected criminals, including a crackdown on confessions extracted by torture.
But a new report by Amnesty International says torture remains pervasive in China’s legal system, and not just against alleged criminals and political activists. Increasingly, the report says, Chinese police and their operatives are torturing lawyers who defend people who come into the crosshairs of China’s Communist Party.
“We are seeing more occasions of lawyers detained and placed under arbitrary detention than in the past,” Patrick Poon, a Hong Kong-based China researcher for Amnesty International, said in a telephone interview. “That makes lawyers much more vulnerable to torture than before.”
Starting in July, Chinese authorities began detaining lawyers who’d defended or spoken out on behalf of human rights activists. More than 200 lawyers and activists were targeted in the sweep and, according to Poon, some 28 are still missing or in police custody.
Even before this year’s crackdown, lawyers who attempted to represent human rights activists or to investigate legal abuses faced the risk of violent abuse.
The report notes the case of Tang Jitian, who was detained by local security officials in March 2014 when he tried to investigate a secret detention facility – known as a “black jail” – in Jiansanjiang, a city in China’s northeastern Heilongjiang province.
Chinese law still does not meet international standards in defining torture, and it doesn’t put the burden of proof on prosecutors to demonstrate that a confession was obtained legally, according to Amnesty International.
“I was strapped to an iron chair, slapped in the face, kicked on my legs and hit so hard over the head with a plastic bottle filled with water that I passed out,” Amnesty quotes the lawyer as saying.
Typical forms of torture used by authorities, the report says, include iron-restraint chairs, sleep deprivation and denial of sufficient food and water. Police also regularly use “tiger benches,” in which a detainee’s legs are strapped to a bench. The detainee’s feet are then elevated with bricks, causing increasing pain.
For its part, China denies it is targeting innocent lawyers, only “criminal gangs” trying to disrupt society for their own profit. “The crackdown of the criminal gang involving several rights lawyers is a step toward realizing China’s social stability,” the state-run Global Times said in a July 14 editorial.
China also says that legal reforms passed since 2010 have increasingly prompted courts to exclude “illegally obtained evidence,” including confessions extracted by torture. “In 2014, by refusing to adopt illegally obtained evidence, procuratorial bodies at all levels decided not to arrest 406 people and not to sue 198 people,” the State Council Information Office wrote in a report released this year called “Progress in China’s Human Rights.”
Poon, who authored Amnesty’s report, agrees that new laws have given courts the authority to exclude evidence obtained by torture. But overall, he said, “the police still have too much power.”
As part of its analysis, Amnesty examined a sample of 590 court cases in China this year in which a defendant alleged torture. Of those 590 cases, only 16 resulted in forced confessions being excluded as evidence by the court. And of those cases, 15 still resulted in convictions.
If anything, Poon said, police powers have been increased in recent years through the formalization in 2013 of a practice known as “residential surveillance in a designated location.”
I was strapped to an iron chair, slapped in the face, kicked on my legs and hit so hard over the head with a plastic bottle filled with water that I passed out.
Lawyer Tang Jitian, who was detained by local security officials in March 2014, as quoted in Amnesty International report
This practice effectively allows police to hold people outside the formal detention system at an undisclosed location for up to six months. Without access to lawyers or family, people held incommunicado have no way of reporting their treatment in captivity.
According to the report, Chinese law still does not meet international standards in defining torture, and it doesn’t put the burden of proof on prosecutors to demonstrate that a confession was obtained legally. “That is why we want China to make the law clearer, in line with international standards,” Poon said.
The Amnesty report comes a week before a United Nations Committee Against Torture hearing in Geneva that will examine China’s record. China has consistently objected to other countries and outside organizations examining what it calls its “internal affairs.” The U.N. committee will hear from Chinese representatives before nongovernmental groups issue testimony about allegations of torture on both the mainland and in Hong Kong.
Stuart Leavenworth: @sleavenworth