Amnesty International has released a report slamming “rampant” torture and forced confessions in China, which it says the Chinese justice system relies on heavily to solve cases.

Despite legal reforms, China is making little progress in stopping its law enforcement officers from abusing suspects to extract confessions. And even though the country’s criminal law prevents forced confessions from being accepted as evidence, courts continue to ignore defendants’ claims of torture and ill treatment by police, the report found.

Illustrations of iron chair (left), tiger bench (centre) and hanging restraint chair (right). Photo: Amnesty International.

“Papering over a justice system that is not independent, where the police remain all-powerful and where there is no recourse when the rights of the defendants are trampled upon will do little to curb the scourge of torture and ill-treatment in China. If the government is serious about improving human rights it must start holding law enforcement agencies to account when they commit abuses,” said Patrick Poon, China Researcher at Amnesty International.

The report comes as the United Nations’ Committee Against Torture is set to review China’s record on torture next week.

The human rights NGO studied 590 cases, in which defendants claimed they were tortured, and found courts only excluded forced confessions in 16 cases – a mere 2.7 percent. And the 16 cases only resulted in one acquittal.

Torture illustration. Photo: Amnesty International.

The report documented common methods of torture used by police and people under policemen’s order, including beatings, long exposure to strong lights, overstretching of the body as well as deprivation of sleep, food and medical care. Detainees were often bound to various types of restraint chairs including tiger benches, iron chairs and hanging restraint chairs (or Diaodiaoyi) for hours, the report said.

Torture of lawyers
The report drew attention to an alarming trend of torture and ill-treatment targeting lawyers who fall foul of the authorities, especially those who fight to expose torture.

Amnesty International interviewed 37 lawyers from across China from June to September this year and found ten of them experienced torture by the police.

“In a system where even lawyers can end up being tortured by the police, what hope can ordinary defendants have?” Poon said.

Lawyer Tang Jitian told Amnesty International that he was tortured last year when he was investigating a secret detention facility.

“I was strapped to an iron chair, slapped in the face, kicked on my legs and hit so hard over the head with a plastic bottle filled with water that I passed out,” he said.

A poster calling for the release of the arrested lawyers. Photo: China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group via Facebook.

Another lawyer Yu Wensheng said he was interrogated repeatedly by ten officers who took turn to question him in three shifts during his 99-day detention in 2014. The officers deliberately set his handcuffs far apart to hurt his wrists, he said.

China launched a massive crackdown on human rights lawyers and activists across the country in July this year. Around 300 people were targeted, according to China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, although exiled legal activist Chen Guangcheng said the real number was at least 2,000.

More than two dozen are still in detention or missing. They are at grave risk of torture, Amnesty International said.

“While we can’t confirm if any of the lawyers detained in this recent crackdown have been subjected to torture or ill-treatment, we are concerned that they are at high risk of torture as they are in police custody, especially those being placed under residential surveillance at a designated location,” Poon told HKFP.

“Residential surveillance at a designated location”, which was formalised in the Criminal Procedure Law 2012 amendment, has become a new form incommunicado detention against human rights lawyers and activists accused of “state security” crimes, Poon said. Detainees face higher risk of torture because they can be held at an undisclosed location for up to six months with no contact with the outside world.

With new emphasis on national security under President Xi Jinping, more crackdowns may be on the way, Poon told HKFP.

“There is serious cause for concern that such crackdowns will happen in the future, if the Chinese government continues to treat human rights lawyers as enemies, is not serious in implementing its laws and does not respect citizens’ freedom of expression.”

Vivienne Zeng

Vivienne Zeng is a journalist from China with three years' experience covering Hong Kong and mainland affairs. She has an MA in journalism from the University of Hong Kong. Her work has been featured on outlets such as Al Jazeera+ and MSNBC.