Seven defendants stand trial for torture at the appellate court, Harbin Intermediate People's Court, in August. Image credit: dbw.cn
A recent court case in the northeastern city of Harbin is shining new light on some of the extremes to which police investigators occassionally go to get criminal suspects to confess in China. It also raises new questions about whether the Chinese criminal justice system punishes the perpetrators of torture severely enough to act as a deterrent.
Last May, a court in Harbin convicted seven defendants of coercing confessions through torture in connection with seven separate incidents, all committed in March 2013. The court imposed sentences ranging from a suspended one-year prison sentence to two-and-a-half years in prison. At least one of the defendants appealed the verdict, landing the case at the Harbin Intermediate People’s Court for an appellate hearing at the end of August.
The court found evidence of what appeared to be routine use of electric shock and other physical torture in the investigation of drug cases by officers at the Daowai District Branch Public Security Bureau. One suspect recalled being handcuffed to a metal chair and shocked with electric batons. Mustard oil was poured up his nose. When he refused to tell police where he got his drugs, they took off his shoe and applied wires to one of his toes. The wires were then connected to an old-fashioned military crank telephone, which sent a current of 120 volts through his body as they cranked it, causing his entire body to convulse.
The same technique was used during another drug investigation that same month. Again, a drug suspect surnamed Liang was handcuffed to a chair. When he began to shout, a towel was stuffed in his mouth. One interrogator began beating Liang in the face with the sole of a shoe. During this ordeal, Liang lost consciousness. By the time they realized that something was wrong, he was dead.
One of the unusual things about this case is that only three of the defendants were police officers. Most of the defendants, including the ones responsible for carrying out most of the actual physical torture, were what is commonly known as “special informants” (teqing, or teshu qingbao renyuan). Police investigators often rely on these informants to provide information or leads that can help them crack cases. In this instance, however, it seems that police were also delegating some of their authority to carry out interrogations—or at least using special informants to do some of their dirty work for them.
Another thing that has attracted attention about the case is the relatively light sentences, especially considering that one victim of torture apparently died during interrogation. As legal scholar Wang Gangqiao pointed out in an opinion piece published in The Beijing News on September 23, the maximum penalty for coercing confessions through torture is three years’ imprisonment, but torture resulting in serious injury or death should be punished according to the more serious offenses of intentional injury or homicide. He questions the court’s failure to hand down more serious penalties in this case, even hinting at the possibility of collusion between law-enforcement authorities to prevent torturers from being held fully accountable.
According to reports, however, local prosecutors lacked evidence to bring homicide charges because police cremated the body of the deceased as the incident was under investigation. As a consequence, a deputy chief at the Daowai Public Security Bureau who ordered the cremation has since been put on trial for abuse of power.
Use of torture to extract confessions is a problem in many countries, especially in situations where investigators lack the skill or experience to build a case through other means. But acceptance of torture can also become part of an institutional mindset, especially when there are expectations of impunity. In this case, the highly politicized nature of China’s “People’s War on Drugs” and the criminal justice system’s long-standing reliance on confession to secure convictions appear to have been contributing factors.
Don’t Let Harbin Torture Trial Serve as Negative Model
The Beijing News, 23 September 2014
Recently, the trial of Wu Yan and others charged with extracting confessions through torture entered the second-instance appellate phase in Harbin. Earlier, the court of first instance found evidence of seven instances of torture, all occurring in March 2013. Official reporting on the case said “the methods used to extract confessions were extremely vile.” [One defendant,] Wu Yan, was sentenced to two-and-a-half years’ imprisonment. [Another,] Zhao Xiaoguang, received a one-year sentence, suspended for a year. All of the other defendants in the first-instance trial received sentences of between one and two years in prison.
A maximum sentence of two-and-a-half years doesn’t seem all that severe. Looking at the statute, the Criminal Law provision on coercing confessions through torture states: “Any law-enforcement officer who extorts confession from a criminal suspect or defendant by torture or extorts testimony from a witness by violence shall be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of not more than three years or penal servitude. If he causes injury, disability, or death [to the victim], he shall be convicted and given a heavier punishment based on the provisions covering the crimes of intentional injury or intentional homicide.” According to the Xinhua News Agency’s report on the case yesterday, on March 24 of last year, Wu Yan accused Chen Xiaowei, Pan Yongquan, and Li Yingbin of using an old-fashioned military crank telephone to electrocute a [suspect] surnamed Liang; Cheng Xiaowei was in the process of beating Liang in the face with the sole of a shoe when Liang suddenly died.
This is probably the reason why the Harbin torture case has been described as involving “extremely vile” methods. The law says that when torture leads to death, it should be “given a heavier punishment based on the provisions covering the crimes of intentional injury or intentional homicide.” Looking at the less serious of these two offenses, intentional injury resulting in death, the penalty should be “fixed-term imprisonment of 10 years or more, life imprisonment, or the death penalty.” This is worlds apart from the sentences handed down in the present case. The reason for this case being tried in second instance is apparently because the defendants appealed. It’s unclear whether the prosecution also appealed the verdict acording to the provisions of the Criminal Law on the grounds that the sentences were abnormally light. It’s really nonsense to think that a one- or two-year sentence—especially a suspended sentence—could help to contain the coercion of confessions through torture, a practice which previous prohibitions have failed to stop.
It’s even more noteworthy that, of the defendants in this case, only Wu Yan, Zhang Siliang, and Zhao Xiaoguang were police officers. Defendants Cheng Xiaowei, Pan Yongquan, Li Chunlong, and Li Yingbin, who also took part in torturing suspects, were not police at all, but rather, “special informants.”
Investigative power is a power specially designated by the state that only specialized units and personnel are authorized to exercise. The interrogation of criminal suspects is the most important part of the investigative process, an activity that is to be carried out only by qualified investigative personnel. “Special informants,” also known as xianren, are individuals whose status is defined by their ability to provide needed information for use by investigators during the investigative process and help them to solve cases. According to the law, “special informants” are still ordinary citizens. They play an auxilliary role in investigations and come under the responsibility of investigative units, but they do not have any investigative power themselves.
Everyone understands the evils of coercing confessions through torture. Police are law-enforcement personnel who have a personal responsibility to maintain law and discipline and safeguard human rights. So when some law-enforcers instead knowingly violate the law and treat torture as an ordinary investigative tool, they ought to be severely punished in accordance with the law. In this case, however, if the prosecution never appealed the verdict, then under the principle of “no heavier penalty on appeal,” the court of second instance cannot increase the penalties given to the defendants in the first-instance verdict. This perhaps demonstrates that, in some locations, police, prosecutors, and courts have come to a kind of “consensus” about lenient punishment for the use of torture to extract confessions.
“Incidents” in the criminal process like this Harbin torture case are a portent of things to come. Behind this incident are the sprouts of many other incidents. For example, the extreme chaos surrounding the system of “special informants,” the extremely casual way that investigative powers are delegated, etc. Open violations like this involve “sprouts of accidents” that should have been extremely obvious to see. While we are pursuing criminal responsibility for coercion of confessions through torture, those units and officials who are responsible for oversight should undertake some serious reflection: As the “safety officials” of the criminal process, what have you done to contain and eradicate this kind of mishap? Oversight requires the establishment of rules and measures that prevent law enforcers from doing things they’re not supposed to do. These are preventative measures for which we can no longer wait!