Despite Chinese government's efforts to curb the torture and ill-treatment of detainees, a new AI report alleges the measures have so far achieved little when it comes to eliminating the deep-rooted practice.
China's human rights record has been increasingly scrutinized since President Xi Jinping took over the reins of the world's most populous nation in 2013. Under Xi, the Chinese government has severely clamped down on public dissent, accuse many rights groups.
They point to the crackdown on activists and human rights lawyers as well as to the narrowing space for the nation's press and the Internet. It's alleged that rights advocates in the communist country increasingly face harassment, arbitrary detention and imprisonment.
Furthermore, there is the issue of torture of detainees by police and security agencies. Despite the government's pledge to end the practice, human rights organizations say abuses are still widespread, with detainees being beaten and tortured to extract confessions.
A widespread practice?
"China's criminal justice system is still heavily reliant on forced confessions obtained through torture and ill-treatment, with lawyers who persist in raising claims of abuse often threatened, harassed, or even detained and tortured themselves," rights group Amnesty International (AI) said in a new report, titled No End in Sight, released on November 11.
The paper documents the physical and psychological torture and ill-treatment of people in pre-trial detention, including beatings by police or other detainees, and sleep deprivation.
"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," Tang Jitian, a former prosecutor and lawyer in Beijing, told AI.
Tang said he was tortured by local security officials in March 2014, when he and three other lawyers investigated alleged torture at a secret detention facility in Jiansanjiang, a farming community located in north-eastern China.
AI says in its report that attempts by defense lawyers to raise or investigate torture claims continue to be systematically thwarted by police, prosecutors and the courts.
"In a system where even lawyers can end up being tortured by the police, what hope can ordinary defendants have?" said Patrick Poon, AI's China Researcher.
The report comes a week before China is to face scrutiny by a UN panel against torture in Geneva.
Revising the laws
The Chinese government has long pledged to root out the practice of torture against detainees. After cases of police brutality against criminal suspects caused a major uproar in 2009 and 2010, the administration announced measures to curb the miscarriage of justice and torture.
These included legislative and regulatory reforms, such as prohibitions against using "cell bosses" - fellow detainees used by police to manage other detainees - and practical steps such as videotaping some interrogations.
As part of the revision to the country's Criminal Procedure Law in 2012, the government also included an "exclusionary rule," prohibiting the use of evidence directly obtained through torture, thereby raising hopes that it might improve the treatment of ordinary criminal detainees.
The Ministry of Public Security, the agency in charge of the police, even claims that the use of coerced confessions dropped significantly in that year as a result of the reforms.
But while the measures appear to have reduced certain abuses, such as those conducted inside police detention centers where suspects are held before trial, the new AI report claims that security agencies have found new ways to deliberately thwart the new protections by increasingly engaging in a new form of detention called "residential surveillance in a designated location."
"Under this system, people suspected of terrorism, major bribery or state security offences can be held outside the formal detention system at an undisclosed location for up to six months, with no contact with the outside world, leaving the detainee at grave risk of torture and other ill-treatment," AI said.
Moreover, the rights group noted, the definition of torture under Chinese law remains inadequate and in contravention of international law.
China still only prohibits certain acts of torture, such as "using violence to obtain a witness statement" and by certain law enforcement officials, it said, adding that mental torture is not explicitly prohibited as is required under international law.
Shang Baojun, a lawyer at Beijing-based Mo Shaoping Law Firm, believes torture is still widespread in the country, although "it is quite hard to estimate the number of confessions obtained through this practice, as there are no official data."
"The situation is slightly better in big cities such as Beijing than in rural areas," he told DW.
China's criminal justice system also gives the police excessive powers over the judiciary, the AI report said.
"Local officials and police continue to pull the strings of China's criminal justice system. Despite defense lawyers' best efforts, many claims of torture are simply ignored for the sake of political convenience," said AI analyst Poon.
"Police wield too much unchecked power, with the result that measures to curb torture are not having the necessary impact," he added.
'Police wield too much unchecked power, with the result that measures to curb torture are not having the necessary impact'
AI said its findings were based not only on interviews with former detainees and their lawyers, but also on an analysis of court documents in China.
The researchers say out of a sample of 590 cases in which allegations of torture were made, forced confessions were excluded in only 16 cases, with one leading to an acquittal and the rest ending in convictions on the basis of other evidence.
"These low number of cases in which evidence obtained through torture was excluded appears to corroborate lawyers' claims that forced confessions continue to be presented as evidence in court, and that unlawfully obtained evidence is not excluded by judges," they argue.
China analyst Poon says: "If the government is serious about improving human rights it must start holding law enforcement agencies to account when they commit abuses."
Additional reporting by Li Shitao.