Thursday, August 30, 2012

(En)countering Torture in China [Part 1 of 2]

Anti-torture pilot projects are underway nationwide, according to a recent report by Southern Metropolis Daily. Trial measures include putting complaint boxes in bathrooms, letting detainees meet with resident procuratorial officers without providing a reason, training police in non-violent interrogation tactics, and setting up automated recording systems to allow interrogations to be watched from monitoring centers in real time. In implementing the projects, China has worked with international partners. The Center for Criminal Procedure and Reform (CCPR) at Renmin University Law School joined Maastricht University in the Netherlands to organize the training of police from 23 provinces, while related torture-prevention initiatives were conducted in collaboration with The Rights Practice and the Great Britain China Centre.

The Sino-EU International Conference on Combating Torture took place in Beijing in June. Photo credit: People’s Procuratorate of Wuhu
The measures demonstrate that China’s approach to torture is shifting from “after-the-fact investigation” to “before-the-fact prevention,” according to Cheng Lei (程雷), the assistant director of the CCPR and a participant in pilot projects in Wuhu, Anhui province.

One Southern Weekly commentator calls the measures “well-intentioned” but suggests that they over-emphasize oversight from higher authorities and ignore the need for lawyers and family members to access detainees. Such outside intervention is necessary because the importance of confessions in “solving” cases effectively incentivizes torture throughout the Chinese justice system.

Legal Reform

Preventing torture is one of the aims of Criminal Procedure Law (CPL) revisions that will go into effect next year, and, lately, the SPC and Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) have set to work strengthening CPL provisions that were criticized as loopholes for torture. On July 30, 2012, the SPC circulated a judicial interpretation of more than 560 articles to get feedback from people’s courts. According to pre-eminent legal scholar Chen Guangzhong (陈光中), the judicial interpretation may make up for certain deficiencies in the law by, for instance, specifying and explicitly forbidding less detectable acts of torture like sleep deprivation and requiring audio and video recordings for interrogations that occur outside detention centers.

Meanwhile, the SPP is working on a major revision of the Criminal Procedure Rules of People’s Procuratorates, issued in 1999. According to Caixin, changes are expected to clarify vagaries in the revised CPL including the definition of “impeding investigation” (有碍侦查)—wording employed in the so-called disappearance clauses.

Challenging Confessions

But is legal reform enough? A recent op-ed in the state-run Global Times argues that “dependence on confessions must be broken if forced confession [i.e., torture] is to be stopped effectively.” The CPL stipulates that sentences can be issued without a confession in cases where evidence is sufficient, but, as Cheng Lei notes, a large number of local procuratorates and courts still believe that confessions are important evidence, and even the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) has used the lack of a confession as a reason not to approve death sentences.

The reliance on confessions has made torture widespread and systemic in China as evidenced by a report published by Beijing Kingdom Law Firm (北京市京鼎律师事务所) in 2006—despite its age the report details problems that are still prevalent today. To promote dialogue on evaluating and implementing appropriate counter-torture measures, Part 2 of this post will provide translations of the 10 legislative flaws and systemic loopholes identified in the report as perpetuating torture in China.