“He was forced to take medicine. They stuffed the pills into his mouth… After taking the pills he felt pain in his muscles and his vision was blurred… He was beaten. He endured gruelling questioning while being denied sleep for days on end…”
Wang Qiaoling describing the torture of her husband, lawyer Li Heping
“Even our breaths were suppressed. No voices. No texts. No images. No talking. No walking. Our hands, feet, our posture…every body movement was strictly limited. We needed permission for even the most trivial action”.
Lawyer Zhao Wei, the youngest legal assistant detained in the 709 Crackdown
“Prisoners were also put in cages submerged mostly in water, and left inside for seven days, the entire body underwater with a space to breath at the top. As they stood in the water and tried to sleep, rats would scurry about outside the cage, biting their nose and ears.”
These are just a few accounts of the torture experienced by human rights lawyers in China. Over 300 lawyers, activists, colleagues and family members were detained, interrogated or disappeared in a sweeping crackdown beginning on 9 July 2015, dubbed the 709 Crackdown. Two years on, most have been released, some on “bail” conditions amounting to house arrest, but with news of their release have come numerous testimonies of physical and psychological torture including frequent beatings, sleep deprivation, forced medication, violent threats, and prolonged isolation.
Use of torture in China
Lawyers and activists are by no means the only victims of torture. Many of the lawyers caught up in the crackdown had defended clients who had been tortured by police or security agents, including those arrested in connection with their religion or belief such as Falun Gong practitioners and Christians associated with unregistered churches, as well as those accused of crimes not related to politics or religion.
Torture in China has long been criticised by the international community. In its fifth review of China’s implementation of the UN Convention against Torture (CAT), which China ratified in 1988, the UN Committee against Torture concluded that China has failed to implement the recommendations made in previous reviews. The committee has ongoing concerns about the lack of legal safeguards to prevent torture, the harassment of lawyers, human rights defenders and petitioners, and accountability for the events in Tibet and neighbouring areas.
China’s own report to the committee states that “China has implemented numerous effective oversight and safeguard mechanisms to prevent the occurrence of torture” (paragraph 57), and points to regulations on administrative and criminal detention which guarantee the rights of detainees.
These claims contrast sharply with testimonies of former prisoners and their lawyers and family members.
China’s secret prisons
The use of “secret prisons” – essentially extra-legal detention facilities – and residential surveillance at a designated location (RSDL) means torture is less unlikely to be investigated and more likely to occur in the first place. RSDL is not the same as house arrest. Under Article 73 of the Criminal Procedure Law (CPL), an individual can be held in a “police-designated” location for up to six months; police have to inform their family members of their detention within 24-hours, but they don’t have to tell them where. RSDL takes the accused off the map: most people detained under this measure have no contact with the outside world and no access to legal representation. For six long months, their families have no idea where they are, what condition they are in, or even whether they are dead or alive. Unsurprisingly, torture is not uncommon.
RSDL takes the accused off the map: most people detained under this measure have no contact with the outside world and no access to legal representation.
The 709 cases also demonstrate how “confessions” written or signed under torture are meaningless. Televised confessions from China show detainees looking haggard and pale, staring vacantly at the camera or unable to lift their heads. Lawyer Xie Yang describes his own ordeal:
“I completely broke down. It got to the point where I was crying as they questioned me and had me write statements. I really couldn’t write anymore. I told them to type something up and I’d sign it, no matter what it said. I didn’t want to go on living. I couldn’t take it anymore—I just wanted to sleep for a little while.”
Interrogators do not only use torture to extract a confession; torture is also an instrument of fear.
Interrogators do not only use torture to extract a confession; torture is also an instrument of fear. It has repercussions not only for the primary victims, but also on their family members, colleagues and wider community. Some of the lawyers released have spoken out publicly about their ill-treatment in prison and have used this to raise awareness of the prevalence of torture in China. However, others have understandably remained silent. It is impossible to estimate how many brave and brilliant lawyers have been forced to abandon their work in this way. It is a tremendous loss to the Chinese people.
So what can be done?
It is vitally important that democratic nations universally condemn use of torture. There is no room here for half-measures and partial justifications. In a statement to mark the International Day for the Victims of Torture on 26 June, UN experts have highlighted that prohibition of torture is ‘absolute’ and can never be justified under any circumstances:
At a time when the absolute prohibition of torture is often challenged in the name of national security across the globe, a group of UN human rights experts strongly reaffirms that the practice of torture is a severe violation of human rights and call on States to eradicate the conditions and circumstances conducive to its practice.
It is also crucial that the international community does not fall into the trap of making exceptions or excuses for governments that have failed to prohibit and protect against torture in areas under their jurisdiction. Put bluntly, Chinese citizens deserve the same protections as UK citizens.
Torture destroys lives”, say the UN experts.
“Torture destroys lives”, say the UN experts. They go on to stress that ending torture requires a renewed commitment from every UN Member State, and that each State has a responsibility to act: “Any tolerance or acquiescence concerning such practices, however exceptional and well argued, will inevitably lead down a slippery slope towards complete arbitrariness and brute force, in disgrace for all of humanity.”
Their message is clear, and the testimonies of torture victims in China speak for themselves. All forms of torture must be universally condemned: no ifs, no buts, and no exceptions. We must challenge torture and the laws, measures and systems that allow it to happen. Only then will the world be free of these horrific stories, and the nightmares they invoke.
By CSW’s China Advocacy Officer