Friday, December 02, 2005

Torture Is 'Widespread' in China, U.N. Investigator Says

Torture Is 'Widespread' in China, U.N. Investigator Says =December 3, 2005

BEIJING, Dec. 2 - A high-level United Nations investigator condemned the "widespread" use of torture in Chinese law enforcement and said Beijing must overhaul its criminal laws, grant more power to judges and abolish labor camps before it can end such abuses, according to a summary of his findings released Friday.

The investigation, by Manfred Nowak, the special rapporteur of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, noted some progress by Chinese officials in reducing violence against prisoners since the country signed an international covenant banning torture in 1988.

But Mr. Nowak said that "obtaining confessions" and fighting "deviant behavior" continued to be central goals of China's criminal justice system. The police and prison guards are pushed to extract admissions of guilt and are rarely punished for using electric shock, sleep deprivation and submersion in water or sewage, among other techniques the Commission on Human Rights considers torture, to obtain them, he said.

"The use of torture, though on the decline, particularly in urban areas, nevertheless remains widespread in China," Mr. Nowak said at a news briefing in Beijing. "There is a need for much more structural reform to address the problem."

Mr. Nowak's initial account of his investigation, unusually blunt by the standards of the United Nations, is likely to upset the Chinese government, which acknowledges that abuses occur but claims that laws banning torture and changes in the way criminal cases are handled have greatly reduced the problem.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman said Friday evening that the government was still reviewing Mr. Nowak's comments and had not yet prepared a response.

Chinese leaders have long professed to govern according to law and are eager to convince foreign investors and their own citizens that the one-party state operates within international legal norms.

But its criminal justice system retains many elements of authoritarian rule. The police and the courts do not enforce many of the safeguards against torture and wrongful conviction that exist in countries with more developed legal systems.

The United Nations report could add to mounting pressure on Beijing to overhaul its criminal laws, abolish extrajudicial internment camps and reduce the use of the death penalty. Legal scholars and some government officials favor such steps but the country's powerful security apparatus, charged with ensuring stability and preventing dissent, has fought demands to broaden the rights of criminals and criminal suspects.

Mr. Nowak's two-week investigation of Chinese prisons and detention facilities was the first of its kind for the United Nations anti-torture unit and took a decade of diplomacy to arrange. He had rare access to some 30 prisoners in several elite facilities in Beijing as well as the remote regions of Tibet and Xinjiang, where persecutions of religious and ethnic minorities are considered common.

While he expressed appreciation to the Chinese government for allowing his visit and allowing private interviews with prisoners, torture victims and their relatives, he said he also experienced many attempts to "obstruct or restrict" his investigation.

The police and security forces put him under constant surveillance, which deterred some people from meeting him, he said. He also complained that his prison visits could take place only during daylight "working hours" of prison guards and that he was not permitted to photograph or tape record his interviews, which he described as standard practice during investigations elsewhere.

He said those restrictions made it more difficult for him to get a complete view of the torture situation in the country. He said a "culture of fear" was pervasive and that some prisoners he spoke to, including people who had earlier filed complaints with his office, claimed during his visit that they had not experienced torture or that they could no longer recall the details. "There was a palpable sense of fear and self-censorship," Mr. Nowak said.

Even so, he said he found evidence of widespread abuses. He said such problems were notable even in Beijing, generally regarded as more faithful to national laws on treatment of detainees than secondary cities or rural areas.

For example, he said, people sentenced to death and awaiting appeal in Beijing detention facilities are regularly handcuffed and shackled 24 hours a day, forcing them to rely on other prisoners to help them eat and use the toilet.

Mr. Nowak said he had met a well-known political prisoner in Beijing Prison No. 2 who described experiencing prolonged torture. The prisoner, He Depu, a dissident who had helped organize an opposition political party and received an eight-year sentence in 2003 for seeking to overthrow the government, said he once was forced to remain immobile on his bed for 85 straight days with his hands held aloft by the side of his head. If his hands moved while he was sleeping, he would be awakened and told to resume the mandated position, Mr. Nowak said.

The authorities ban only the sort of torture, called kuxing in Chinese, that meets a narrow definition of violent punishment leaving a lasting impact, like scars or disability, Mr. Nowak said. Officials have not done enough to outlaw physical or psychological abuse that does not produce a visible injury, Mr. Nowak said.

He said his investigation showed that such techniques include hooding and blindfolding, beating by fellow prisoners, use of handcuffs and ankle fetters for long periods, exposure to extreme heat or cold, being forced to maintain awkward postures for long periods and the denial of medical treatment. Sleep deprivation, he said, is perhaps the most common violation of what he called international standards of prisoner treatment.

His summary noted that in recent years the government had taken steps to reduce torture, including issuing new regulations in 2004 that prohibit torture and threats to gain confessions.

But he said he found ample evidence that the courts still relied too heavily on forced confessions when assessing guilt.

He said torture also remained common in the country's labor camps, which are operated by the police with little oversight. He said adherents of the Falun Gong religious and exercise sect, whom the authorities consider a major threat to national security and are regularly interned in the camps without being tried, are frequently forced to maintain "stress positions" as a form of punishment.

He said he would recommend that the labor camps be abolished.

He said that to come into full compliance with its commitment to eliminate torture, China must grant new rights to criminal suspects, including the right to remain silent, a privilege against self-incrimination and the exclusion of evidence extracted through torture.

He also recommended that the courts be strengthened and given oversight of detainees.

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