Torture widespread in China, report says

Police go unpunished, courts accept confessions

May 04, 2000|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- A dozen years after China signed the United Nations Convention Against Torture, beating and torture of criminal suspects remains a widespread problem, according to a report scheduled for release today.

Despite new laws, officials who use torture usually go undisciplined and courts continue to accept confessions extracted through beatings, the New York-based watchdog group Human Rights in China says in a 44-page brief.

"Torture is rarely punished in China," the report says. "While providing impunity for officials who use physical violence, this reality also effectively encourages many law enforcement officials to rely on ill-treatment, rather than on proper investigative techniques to break cases."

The organization has submitted the report to a U.N. committee beginning a periodic review of China's compliance with the convention.

Later this month, the House of Representatives is to vote on granting China permanent trading rights as a part of Beijing's bid to join the World Trade Organization, which sets global trading rules. Critics of the bill argue that Beijing should first do more to improve human rights and labor safety.

The Clinton administration says passage of the measure would provide U.S. businesses fairer access to China's potentially enormous consumer market and help integrate the world's most populous nation into the global community.

Always a problem in China, torture has received more attention than usual in the past year as the regime has cracked down on the banned spiritual meditation group, Falun Gong. The group enraged China's leaders by staging a quiet, 10,000-person protest a year ago outside the Communist Party's leadership compound in the capital.

Unable to frighten core Falun Gong supporters into submission, the regime has resorted to mass detention and torture in a failed attempt to break the group's back.

One case involved a 58-year-old believer who died in February after police repeatedly shocked her with a cattle prod, according to the Asian Wall Street Journal.

Figures on torture in China remain sketchy. The Supreme People's Procuratorate reported that 241 people were tortured to death here in 1993 and 1994, though human rights observers believe the number is far higher.

While today's report criticizes China's failure to enact and enforce better anti-torture laws, it also notes an important development that could help improve the problem over time: In recent years, China's state-owned media have begun publicizing more cases of brutality by police, who are widely despised in Chinese society.

Perhaps recognizing that violence is bad public policy, the government has allowed Chinese reporters to dig into stories about police who abuse citizens.

One of the more sensational cases involved seven police officers in the southern province of Guangdong who were charged last year with machine-gunning four peasants and cremating their bodies.

Such extrajudicial slayings are not unusual, but the fact that a government-run newspaper, Legal Daily, broke the story and the officers were arrested, was. When the victims of torture are democracy advocates or other perceived "enemies of the state," though, they do not enjoy such justice.

Last year, four Falun Gong followers were convicted of revealing "state secrets" for exposing the beating death of a fellow member in police custody, according to the Human Rights in China report.

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