Torture, though on the decline, particularly in urban areas, remains widespread in China, and Government officials have increasingly recognized the problem and undertaken a number of measures to tackle it, the independent United Nations human rights expert on the issue said today.
In a report on a two-week visit resulting from a request originally made nearly a decade ago, the Special Rapporteur of the UN Commission on Human Rights on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Manfred Nowak, made a raft of recommendations ranging from legal reforms to an independent monitoring system.
Although he said he could not make a detailed determination as to the current scale of abuses, he confirmed that many of the torture methods alleged to have been practiced on ethnic minorities, particularly Tibetans and Uighurs, political dissidents, human rights defenders, Falun Gong practitioners and members of house-church groups have been used in China.
The alleged methods include use of electric shock batons, cigarette burns, guard-instructed beatings by fellow prisoners, submersion in pits of water or sewage, exposure to extreme heat or cold, being forced to maintain uncomfortable positions, deprivation of sleep, food or water, and suspension from overhead fixtures by handcuffs.
Mr. Nowak, who visited Beijing, Lhasa in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and Urumqi in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR), noted that all meetings with detainees were carried out in privacy and in locations he designated, no request for a meeting or interviewing a particular individual was refused and prison staff were generally cooperative.
He expressed his “deep appreciation” to the Foreign Ministry for its great efforts in ensuring that the mission proceeded as smoothly as possible and that his terms of reference were in principle respected.
But he said he “feels compelled to point out” that a number of alleged victims and family members were intimidated by security personnel, placed under police surveillance, instructed not to meet him, or were physically prevented from meeting with him.
Moreover, in his interviews with detainees, he observed “a palpable level of fear and self-censorship,” a considerable number of detainees did not express a willingness to speak with him and several of those who did requested absolute confidentiality.
He also noted that some Government authorities, particularly the Ministries of State Security and Public Security, attempted at various times throughout the visit to obstruct or restrict his attempts at fact-finding and that he and his team were frequently under surveillance.
“Under these conditions and taking into account the size and complexity of China as well as the limited duration of the mission, the Special Rapporteur acknowledges the limitations in drawing up a comprehensive set of findings and conclusions on the situation of torture and ill-treatment in China,” he said.
Mr. Nowak noted several government steps to tackle the problem both at the central and local levels, from the standardization of regulations to measures against forced confessions resulting in injuries or miscarriages of justice to pilot systems of audio and video recording in interrogation rooms.
But he listed major obstacles such the failure to exclude statements made as a result of torture, the absence of an independent judiciary and the lack of an independent monitoring mechanism of all places of detention and a functional complaints mechanism.
Among his key preliminary recommendations to the Government, Mr. Nowak cited reform of the criminal law by adding the crime of torture in accordance with international definitions with appropriate penalties and establishing an independent complaints mechanism for detainees subject to torture and ill-treatment.
He also called for abolishing the Criminal Law section under which any lawyers who counsel clients to repudiate forced confessions could risk prosecution, ending ‘Re-Education through Labour’ and similar forms of forced re-education of detainees, and limiting the death penalty by abolishing it for economic and non-violent crimes.
Special Rapporteurs are unpaid experts serving in an independent personal capacity who receive their mandate from the UN Human Rights Commission.