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Torture down in China, but abuses still widespread, U.N. envoy says

BEIJING—Public security agents appear to resort to torture less than in the past, but mistreatment of prisoners is still widespread in China, a senior U.N. envoy said Friday.

Manfred Nowak, the U.N. special rapporteur on torture, exhorted China to abolish hard labor camps and the use of psychiatric hospitals as prisons, and called on the nation to reveal how often it applies the death penalty each year.

Nowak said he'd visited nine prisons in China during a two-week trip in which security agents regularly sought to "obstruct or restrict" his fact-finding efforts.

Nonetheless, the trip marked a historic concession by China, which had rebuffed requests by the United Nations since 1995 to allow a senior U.N. envoy to probe charges of pervasive torture and degrading treatment.

Nowak, an Austrian law professor, said the use of torture varied widely and was more common in rural areas.

"I would recognize a certain decline in the level of torture in recent years, but nonetheless torture remains widespread in the country," he said.

Much abuse results from "great pressure" on public security agents to extract confessions from criminal suspects, he said, adding that high levels of government have taken limited steps to punish those found using torture.

"It is my well-founded belief that the authorities have taken measures to combat torture," he said at a news conference, noting in a supplemental written statement that 1,595 civil servants were investigated in 2004 for coercing confessions and abusing detainees, among other acts.

Nowak said he spoke confidentially with some 30 prisoners in Beijing and in the Tibet and Xinjiang autonomous regions, detecting "a palpable level of fear and self-censorship" among inmates, an apparent sign that they feared reprisals for meeting him.

China says it has 1.5 million inmates in its 670 jails.

It executes more people each year than the rest of the world combined, human rights groups say. The rights groups estimate the numbers from news reports of executions. China treats capital punishment as a state secret.

Nowak called on China to tighten its legal interpretation of torture to include psychological and physical pressures "that leave no scars" but traumatize detainees.

Some detention tactics, such as throwing people in "re-education through labor" camps outside the judiciary's overview, are aimed "at breaking the will of detainees and altering their personality," Nowak's statement said.

Such confinement often is applied to dissidents, religious activists and minority Tibetan and Uighur activists, who chafe at the majority Han Chinese efforts to govern them and flood their regions with settlers, diluting their cultures.

Among the types of torture allegedly used in China, Nowak's statement said, are electric shocks with batons, hooding, beatings by fellow prisoners, constant use of ankle shackles, submersion in sewage, stress positions and prolonged exposure to cold and heat.

Nowak said one inmate at Beijing's Prison No. 2, democracy campaigner He Depu, told him he was forced to sleep for 85 days in midwinter with a single small blanket, his hands and feet constantly exposed to the cold.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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