- 19 Nov 2015
- [International Secretariat]
- Region: PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF CHINA
China’s criminal justice system is still heavily reliant on forced confessions obtained through torture and ill-treatment, with lawyers who persist in raising claims of abuse often threatened, harassed, or even detained and tortured themselves, Amnesty International said in a new report released today.
The report, No End in Sight, documents how criminal justice reforms hailed as human rights advances by the Chinese government have in reality done little to change the deep-rooted practice of torturing suspects to extract forced confessions. Attempts by defence lawyers to raise or investigate torture claims continue to be systematically thwarted by police, prosecutors and the courts.
Lawyers from across China told Amnesty International of the retribution they faced when they challenged law enforcement authorities. Lawyers pointed to fundamental flaws in the justice system that allow police officers, prosecutors and other officials to circumvent new safeguards designed to prevent forced confessions leading to wrongful convictions. Chinese legal experts estimate that less than 20% of all criminal defendants have legal representation.
The report documents torture and ill-treatment in pre-trial detention, including beatings by police or by other detainees with the officers’ knowledge or upon their orders.
With China’s record on torture set to be scrutinized by the United Nations’ expert anti-torture committee in Geneva next week, the government has claimed the authorities have “always encouraged and supported lawyers in performing their duties” and denied any “retaliation”.
Secret detention and torture
The report shows that over the past two years the authorities have made increasing use of a new form of incommunicado detention called “residential surveillance in a designated location”, that was formalized in law in 2013 when revisions to China’s Criminal Procedure Law took effect.
Under this system, people suspected of terrorism, major bribery or state security offences can be held outside the formal detention system at an undisclosed location for up to six months, with no contact with the outside world, leaving the detainee at grave risk of torture and other ill-treatment.
Twelve lawyers and activists caught up in the ongoing crackdown against human rights and legal activists are currently being held in “residential surveillance in a designated location” on state security charges. Amnesty International considers all of them to be at serious risk of torture and ill-treatment and has called for the Chinese government to release them and drop all charges against them.
Despite several rounds of reform since 2010, the definition of torture under Chinese law remains inadequate and in contravention of international law. Chinese law still only prohibits certain acts of torture, such as “using violence to obtain a witness statement”. Mental torture is not explicitly prohibited in Chinese law as is required under international law.
The majority of lawyers interviewed for this report cited the lack of judicial independence and the pre-eminent power of the public security agencies as one of the main obstacles in seeking justice in claims of torture. Local political and legal committees, made up of local Communist Party officials, wield considerable influence in determining the outcome of politically sensitive court cases.
Torture and unlawful “evidence”
In an attempt to analyse how courts in China deal with allegations of extracting “confessions” through torture since the introduction of reforms designed to exclude torture-tainted evidence, Amnesty International reviewed hundreds of court documents that have been made available on China’s Supreme People’s Court national online database.
Out of a sample of 590 cases in which allegations of torture were made, forced confessions were excluded in only 16 cases, with one leading to an acquittal and the rest ending in convictions on the basis of other evidence. These low number of cases in which evidence obtained through torture was excluded appears to corroborate lawyers’ claims that forced confessions continue to be presented as evidence in court, and that unlawfully obtained evidence is not excluded by judges.
Under international and China’s domestic law the burden of proof lies with prosecutors to show that evidence was obtained lawfully. In practice however, courts routinely dismiss allegations of torture if the defendant cannot prove them.
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