When Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives for a state visit in Washington next month, will President Obama press him to improve China’s disturbing record on torture in detention?
If so, Xi might point to the case of Nian Bin, who was released last year through a rare exoneration after spending eight years on death row in China, convicted of a crime he did not commit on the basis of a confession that he says was obtained through torture. But Xi will probably not mention the reality that Nian remains plagued by flashbacks of being tortured in detention and reflexively assumes the position of being shackled while he sleeps.
Beijing has adopted some measures over the past six years to rein in abusive police conduct during criminal investigations, but research for a new Human Rights Watch report shows there is a long way to go before routine torture is eradicated.
Former criminal suspects told us that, to make them confess, police officers shackled them for days to “tiger chairs” — metal chairs with hand and leg cuffs — hung them by the wrists and deprived them of sleep. Others described beatings at the hands of cell bosses, fellow detainees who oversee cells for the police in detention centers. Like all those given death sentences, “Yang Jinhua” — not his real name — spent eight years shackled hand and foot. His sister told us he was unable to feed or properly dress himself.
Detainees who are ill-treated have few opportunities to get help. Although they have a right to a lawyer, an estimated 70 percent to 90 percent of criminal defendants in China have none. They are not allowed to have lawyers present during interrogations, and they have no right to remain silent.
One former suspect, “Cao Zuowei,” told Human Rights Watch that while being beaten by police in Hunan province, he threatened to hire a lawyer to sue. The police retorted, “Hire a lawyer? You think this is . . . the U.S.?” and kept on beating him. Detainees also have very limited access to their families and no access to independent medical personnel , a critical link for reporting torture or ill treatment in an otherwise closed environment.
Why is it so hard to end torture in China? At the heart of the matter is broad police power. The police make all initial decisions to detain people and can subject them to 37 days of incommunicado interrogation before the procuratorate, an agency with investigatory and prosecution powers, must approve their continued detention. In many other places, including Hong Kong, suspects must be taken before a judge within 48 hours. The Ministry of Public Security, which is in charge of the police, operates the detention centers, permitting police unlimited and unsupervised access to detainees. Few officers are disciplined — let alone prosecuted and imprisoned — for torture.
New measures adopted since 2009 include an “exclusionary rule,” which should mean that confessions obtained through torture cannot be admitted as evidence in court. But some police and other key officials appear to have adapted their tactics to thwart or circumvent the new measures. With some detention facilities now equipped with metal bars separating interrogators and suspects or other facilities to prevent torture, several people told us they were taken out of the centers, tortured and then returned. This was sufficiently common that former detainee “Wu Ying” told us that detainees feared nothing more than being taken out of their cells.
Many procurators showed little enthusiasm for investigating or holding police responsible for abuse. Torture victims and families told us that their credible allegations of torture were given little consideration throughout the process. In one case, a provincial procurator in Fujian refused to investigate, telling “Chen Aomin” that the torture that left her husband disabled was “just a small issue.”
Although judges are required to exclude coerced evidence, they sometimes ignore clear evidence of mistreatment or fail to examine the claims seriously. We searched a large database of more than 150,000 newly published court verdicts in the first four months of 2014 and found 432 verdicts that referenced torture allegations. The court threw out evidence in only 23 of those cases, and none led to an acquittal.
The new rules prompted Nian’s exoneration, and some well-known cases are being reheard. But some of the victories are pyrrhic: There has been no meaningful accountability for Nian’s ill treatment or wrongful conviction, and late last year Fujian police reopened the case, saying that they found new evidence against him in the case in which he was convicted of poisoning his neighbors — and so he is again a criminal suspect.
Unless the government substantially curtails police power and significantly increases the basic rights of the accused, officers will still be able to get away with torture, and wrongful convictions such as those of Nian will continue to occur.
The failure to eradicate routine torture prolongs terrible suffering and undermines public confidence in the justice system. If the United States is serious about pushing for legal reform in China, Obama and Xi should discuss steps toward ensuring that Nian — and so many others — can again sleep at night.
Maya Wang is a China researcher at Human Rights Watch.