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Image: picture-alliance / dpa

Prison torture in China

Gabriel Domínguez
May 13, 2015

Coerced confessions, police brutality - a new HRW report accuses the Chinese government of failing to put a stop to abusive interrogations of criminal suspects in pretrial detention.


"Our superiors know about it, they all tolerate torture. The many years I have been a police officer, no one has been punished for extracting confessions through torture. The cadres do not care or ask about the use of torture; if someone complains those lower down can plead with the superiors."

These are the words of former Chinese police officer Zheng Qianyang speaking to Human Rights Watch (HRW) in February 2014 about the methods used by the country's law enforcement agencies to extract confessions from criminal suspects.

His statements are among those of 48 recent detainees, family members, lawyers, and former officials included in a report published by the rights group on Wednesday, May 13. Titled "Tiger Chairs and Cell Bosses: Police Torture of Criminal Suspects in China," the authors of the 145-page document state that police torture and ill-treatment of suspects in pretrial detention remains a widespread problem in China.

"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, HRW's China director. "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."


After cases of police brutality against criminal suspects caused a major outcry in 2009 and 2010, the Chinese government announced measures to curb miscarriage of justice and torture. These included legislative and regulatory reforms, such as prohibitions against using "cell bosses" to manage other detainees, and practical steps such as videotaping some interrogations.

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Rights activists argue that police alone make all initial decisions to deprive suspects of their libertyImage: Getty Images

HRW says that in 2012, when the government revised the Criminal Procedure Law, there were hopes that the strengthened procedural protections, including an "exclusionary rule" prohibiting the use of evidence directly obtained through torture, 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.

Evading the new measures

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 report claims some police officers have found new ways to deliberately thwart the new protections by taking detainees away from these facilities for interrogations or by using torture methods that leave no visible injuries.

"Videotaped interrogations are routinely manipulated: for example, rather than recording the full interrogation, some officers take the suspects out of detention centers to torture them, then take them back into the detention centers to videotape the confession," said the report.

HRW also accused procurators - officers from the agency responsible for the investigation and prosecution of crimes - and judges of sometimes "ignoring clear evidence of mistreatment or failing to examine the claims seriously, rendering the exclusionary rule of little benefit."

Among the findings are incidents of detainees being 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.

"They handcuffed both my hands and beat me, hitting and kicking was the least of it all. 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," Gu Daoying, a former detainee from the eastern coastal province of Zhejiang, was quoted in the report as saying.

'Facilitating abuse'

HRW claims that a key aspect that has facilitated such abuses is the suspects' lack of access to lawyers, family members, and doctors not beholden to the police. Another contributing factor identified by the group is that the Chinese criminal justice system "provides opportunities for the police to abuse suspects and gives them enormous power over the judiciary, hindering any accountability efforts," said the report.

"Torture is forbidden by law in China and there are clear rules about using it as a policing tool," Tang Jitian, a Chinese human rights lawyer, told DW. Nevertheless, he added "torture is still frequently used in the country."

While the police may abide by the law in certain "normal" cases, these laws will likely be ignored as soon as "core interests" are at stake or the government expressed "major concerns" over an issue, Tang added.

Rights activists argue that police alone make all initial decisions to deprive suspects of their liberty, and can subject them to 37 days of repeated instances of incommunicado interrogation before the procuratorate must approve their arrests.

"The police were always around, you can't talk. Talk to the doctor? No way, you get beaten if you talk," Ma Yingying, a former detainee was quoted as saying on the physical examination mandated for all suspects before being admitted to a detention center.

The HRW document also highlights the role played by the Ministry of Public Security, which operates the detention centers. "Lawyers are not allowed to be present during interrogations; and suspects have no right to remain silent, violating their right against self-incrimination. Procurators and judges rarely question or challenge police conduct, and internal oversight mechanisms remain weak."

No acquittals

The rights group says it based its findings not only on interviews, but also on the analysis of Chinese court verdicts. They say they searched approximately 158,000 verdicts published on the court's website between January 1 and April 30, 2014, for verdicts in which suspects alleged police torture.

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'Lawyers are not allowed to be present during interrogations; and suspects have no right to remain silent,' says the HRW reportImage: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

A total of 432 verdicts referenced torture allegations, but only 23 resulted in the court throwing out evidence, according to the report. None led to an acquittal. Chinese judges rarely hand down not-guilty verdicts: in 2013, only 825 out of an estimated 1,160,000 criminal defendants, or 0.07 percent, were acquitted.

"It's hard to square such consistent accounts of abuse with claims by President Xi Jinping that the government respects the rule of law," said Richardson.

The activist says that while the measures introduced by the government since 2009 are improvements, they have not gone far enough to combat abuse interrogations and prevent wrongful convictions.

"If the government fails to take further steps against routine torture, it will raise larger questions about its willingness to carry out reforms that will improve public confidence in the country's judicial system," said Richardson. Government claims of a reduction in detainee abuse are set to be scrutinized by a United Nations Committee against Torture in November.

Li Shitao from DW's Chinese service contributed to this report.

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