Saturday, October 6, 2007

Chinese Officials on Presence of Counsel and Torture Cases Against Investigators

A recent article from a Chinese government web site discusses the failure of China's legal mechanisms to guarantee the presence of counsel during criminal interrogation, which can leave suspects vulnerable to illegal coercion at the hands of investigators. It also touches on the burden on criminal investigators to disprove torture charges against them stemming from cases of forced confessions. With comments attributed to officials from China's main criminal justice bodies, the article (PDF with Dui Hua's translation) prescribes several measures to help China improve protection of the human rights of criminal suspects.

The piece echoes the position the Chinese government has held for years: investigators still use force, including elements of torture, to coerce confessions, and China has expressed a commitment to curb this problem through legal and penal reform. The use of torture to force confessions has been a criminal offense in China since 1979, and torture during interrogation explicitly violates the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which China ratified in 1988.

In China, a confession by a criminal suspect who is later brought to trial all but ensures a guilty verdict (and possible prison sentence) since virtually all such suspects in criminal cases are convicted. And in the Chinese penal system, forced confessions from prisoners who initially attempted to maintain their innocence have been linked to reduced sentences or better treatment, a practice that has received intense international criticism.

Positive changes in these and other areas are expected to accompany reform of China's criminal procedure law, drafts of which have been circulating and may soon receive a reading by the National People's Congress. If provisions to improve access to legal counsel and "presumption of innocence" are eventually included and effectively implemented, it would help safeguard suspects from being coerced into confessing guilt and bolster progress toward better human rights protections and established rule of law in China.

Dui Hua has paid close attention to the issues of torture and forced confessions, most prominently in its Dialogue cover story (PDF) and interview with the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture (PDF) in 2006 on the use of torture in China.

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