Human Rights Watch Report Details Beatings, Torture in Chinese Prisons

AP Photo/Miguel Villagran
AP Photo/Miguel Villagran

A new Human Rights Watch report accuses China law enforcement authorities of dodging new government measures designed to minimize the use of torture and abuse in the police system. Police still routinely use beatings, sleep deprivation, and hanging prisoners by the walls to force confessions, the organization alleges.

The report, titled “Tiger Chairs and Cell Bosses: Police Torture of Criminal Suspects in China,” notes that laws passed in the past decade meant to curb police abuse appear to have led to more secretive behavior to continue the practices while not violating said laws. The report cites prisoners who report being hung by their arms for extended periods of time, shackled to a torture device called a “tiger chair,” and forced to go without sleep or beaten with batons or other police weapons.

“They handcuffed me and then hung the handcuffs on the windows… I was hung like a dog,” one former detainee told the organization of his time behind bars.

In addition to abuse by police, the report notes the rampant use of “cell bosses”: inmates designated by the police to keep their cell blocks controlled. The cell bosses are given free reign to abuse of their fellow inmates, taking the legal responsibility of the abuse out of the hands of the police themselves.

These new methods of torturing prisons, Human Rights Watch writes, are largely responses to reforms by the Chinese government that make it more difficult for police to overtly torture detainees:

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. 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 use of cameras has prompted police to merely take prisoners out of interrogation rooms to beat and torture them, only returning them to the camera eye for their confessions.

The report cites other human rights abuses, such as the near lack of defense attorneys working for prisoners in the nation (“academic and official sources estimate that 70 to 90 percent of criminal defendants in China have no lawyers”) and use of isolation on prisoners that have not yet been convicted of any crime.

Human Rights Watch notes that its report is based on “hundreds of newly published court verdicts from across the country and interviews with 48 recent detainees, family members, lawyers, and former officials.”

The paper is the first, the Wall Street Journal reports, to use an online database China has created of its legal verdicts. The database was meant to provide more transparency on the part of law enforcement regarding who is being sentenced for which crimes.

Chinese government spokeswoman Hua Chunying told Reuters that laws are in place which “clearly ban” these practices. There is no indication that the Chinese government will address the concerns in the Human Rights Watch paper with any concrete reforms.

China’s prison system has long been considered among the world’s most abusive. A 2014 report found that China executes more people per year than the top five countries with most executions combined (the Islamic State pseudo-government project in Iraq and Syria is not considered a state for these purposes). Claims that the government was considering eliminating its brutal labor camp system in 2013 came and went with little news of improvement in the lives of those imprisoned.

Instead of addressing human rights concerns inside China, the Chinese government has continued to publicize accusations of “human rights abuses” within the United States. In August 2014, Chinese state media outlet Xinhua claimed that America was a nation “racist in every way,” citing the protests against police in Ferguson, Missouri. Earlier in the year, the Chinese government published a long report accusing the United States of various “human rights abuses,” including the Boston Marathon bombing and the fact that Jimmy Kimmel broadcasts a comedy show on American television.


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