China: Tell the Truth on Torture at UN Review

Image Source: Democracy Chronicles, Flickr, Creative Commons China lawyer tortured Pu Zhiqiang

Image Source: Democracy Chronicles, Flickr, Creative Commons
China lawyer tortured Pu Zhiqiang

Beijing, China (HRW) – As the worst crackdown on human rights in two decades unfolds, the Chinese government is also failing to respond candidly to a key United Nations torture review, Human Rights Watch said today. The review is China’s fifth under the Convention against Torture and will be held on November 17-18, 2015, in Geneva.

The review takes place after years of Chinese government promises to curb wrongful convictions, which are often the result of endemic torture.

“Torture remains a daily reality in China, and this is a critical moment for Beijing to answer tough questions about why this problem persists,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Dishonesty, evasion, or obfuscation from officials at the review can only deepen torture survivors’ agony. An honest discussion that commits to accountability for torturers might help mitigate survivors’ pain and indicate willingness to reform.”

The review is to be broadcast live between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Central European Time (5 p.m. and 8 p.m. China Standard Time) on November 17, and between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. (10 p.m. and 1 a.m. China Standard Time) on November 18.

The Committee against Torture (CAT), the international panel of experts that assesses state compliance under the Convention against Torture, last reviewed China in 2008. Since then, the government has made a series of reforms to its criminal justice system after domestic press accounts exposed cases of severe torture of criminal suspects leading to wrongful convictions, deaths, and a public outcry.

But a 145-page report on the treatment of pretrial detainees in China published in May 2015 by Human Rights Watch finds that torture remains routine in criminal detention facilities. Criminal justice reforms to date, such as the introduction of the “exclusionary rule” – which prohibits the use of evidence directly obtained through torture – are easily circumvented.

Over the years China’s government has failed to implement most of the CAT’s recommendations, including adopting a definition of torture that fully complies with the Convention against Torture, which China ratified in 1988. Beijing has not acknowledged its lack of implementation or amendment of key laws, or its systematic failure to hold torturers accountable, particularly members of the security forces.

The Chinese government’s reply to the CAT’s 2015 List of Issues, as explained in Human Rights Watch’s submission to the CAT, omits critical statistical information requested by the Committee, makes a slew of unsupportable claims, and in general fails to note the wide gulf between Chinese laws and regulations and their implementation in practice. For example, the government’s reply claiming that xiaohao, or solitary confinement during pretrial detention, prohibited under international law, is used just “as a management approach” rather than as a punishment is untrue. In practice as well as prescribed in the relevant regulations, solitary confinement is used to punish detainees who have violated detention center rules. The government’s reply that it does not use “tiger chairs,” but uses “interrogation chairs in line with national standards,” is misleading; they are the same and enable torture.

Since March 2013 when President Xi Jinping assumed formal power, his government has also detained and imprisoned hundreds of human rights defenders. Many have been subjected to or are at risk of torture, particularly those who have been held incommunicado, including human rights lawyers Wang Yu and Wang Quanzhang.

Human Rights Watch is also concerned about reprisals against activists from China who have tried to participate in the 2015 torture review, particularly in light of the death of Cao Shunli. Cao had pressed authorities to allow independent civil society participation in China’s 2013 Universal Periodic Review, the mechanism for examining all UN members’ human rights records every four years. She was detained in Beijing in September 2013 en route to Geneva and held incommunicado for more than a month before being charged with “causing a disturbance.” She was denied access to adequate healthcare in detention for months even though she was seriously ill, and died in March 2014, days after authorities finally transferred her from detention to a hospital.

In preparation for China’s 2015 CAT review, dozens of activists filed more than a hundred requests seeking public disclosure of information relating to contentions in the government’s CAT report they find dubious, according to the group Chinese Human Rights Defenders. The government has refused, claiming the requested information either falls outside of the scope of that ministry which received the request, or that the information “does not exist.” At least five of these individuals were reportedly questioned by Beijing andJiangsu police and briefly detained in August and September 2015 after they submitted the requests.

Human Rights Watch urged the CAT to ask in the interactive dialogue about the treatment of these activists, and reiterate the importance of genuine civil society participation in all UN proceedings and reviews.

“Civil society members in China should not have to risk jail or their lives to participate in the Committee against Torture review,” Richardson said.

Human Rights Watch calls on the Chinese government to commit at the review to enacting fundamental reforms that could enable defense lawyers, the judiciary, and independent monitors to play their proper role in countering torture. The government should:

  • Ensure that anyone taken into police custody be promptly brought before a judge, normally within 48 hours of being apprehended;
  • Revise the Criminal Procedure Law to ensure that suspects may have lawyers present during any police questioning and interrogations, and stipulate suspects’ right to remain silent during questioning; and
  • Transfer the power to manage detention centers from the Ministry of Public Security to the Ministry of Justice.

“For 15 years the Committee Against Torture, civil society, and many others have pushed Beijing for these basic changes, yet Chinese authorities have resisted,” Richardson said. “We’ll know China’s leaders are serious about eradicating torture when officials provide credible information to these reviews, when all who want to participate can do so without fear of reprisals, and when all who have been ill-treated see their tormentors prosecuted.”

For more Human Rights Watch reporting on China’s use of torture, please visit:
Tiger Chairs and Cell Bosses: Police Torture of Criminal Suspects in China
HRW Letter to the UN Committee Against Torture re: Pre-Sessional Review of China
HRW Submission to the UN Committee Against Torture (November 2015)
HRW Letter to the UN Committee Against Torture re: China Torture Cases
China Must be Pressed to End Torture by Police, by Maya Wang


Prepared by Human Rights Watch.