Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Editorial Calls for Assertion of Civil Rights in Face of Chinese Police Torture

China’s police are again facing criticism after the latest in a string of embarrassing detainee deaths. Three top police officers in Lushan County, Henan, lost their jobs and four more officers face criminal prosecution following the death of Wang Yahui, a suspected thief who died suddenly in the county detention center on February 21, three days after being taken into custody.

A police official initially told a local television station that Wang had died after drinking some hot water during his interrogation, a claim immediately subjected to derision online. Wang’s family members demanded an autopsy after finding injuries to his chest, arms, head, and genitals, injuries that ultimately forcing police to accept responsibility for his death.

In April 2009, China’s State Council Information Office and Ministry of Foreign Affairs jointly released the “National Human Rights Action Plan (2009–2010),” which it promoted as a document guiding all government departments’ human rights work during the two-year period. In a section on guaranteeing the rights of the person, the plan makes clear that torture and illegal detention are prohibited under Chinese law and that violators are subject to criminal prosecution. Unlike elsewhere in the plan, no new concrete measures were introduced to address abuses in the criminal justice system, giving the impression that existing legislation and enforcement efforts are adequate to do the job.

Yet, during the first quarter of 2009 alone, there were a number of widely discussed unnatural deaths of individuals held in Chinese detention facilities. The death of 24-year-old Li Qiaoming in Jinning, Yunnan, was initially attributed to a deadly game of jailhouse “hide-and-seek,” but a later investigation eventually led officials to acknowledge that Li had been beaten to death by other inmates. In Shaanxi, 19-year-old Xu Gengrong died under mysterious circumstances after seven days of detention, and officials in Jiujiang, Jiangxi, blamed the death of 50-year-old Li Wenyan on a “nightmare.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests these incidents are not aberrations in an otherwise stellar record of fighting torture, as the Chinese government has attempted to argue over the years. Instead, they appear to exemplify commonplace abuse that has been identified for years without substantive efforts being taken to address them. The response to these incidents by the Ministry of Public Security, which runs China’s system of detention centers, was to announce a three-month campaign to “boost professional ethics, law awareness, and respect for human rights” at prisons and detention centers. However, this effort to rectify serious deficiencies through an “in-house” campaign of education shows a remarkable lack of innovation and an excessive reliance on measures that have been tried before without yielding tangible results.

“Brave” efforts are necessary to eliminate torture, says an editorial (translated by Dui Hua below) published Tuesday in Southern Metropolis Daily, a Guangzhou-based newspaper known for its relatively outspoken and liberal positions. In the newspaper’s view, blame lies within the entire culture of interactions between legal authorities and ordinary citizens. Both police and the public have been conditioned to believe that citizens should be docile when confronted by police power, a situation that can naturally lead to a debasement of civil rights. The editorial warns that criminal sanctions against the few law enforcement agents who get caught torturing detainees will not ultimately change this mentality. What is needed instead is for citizens themselves to assert their own civil rights and, in doing so, demand that law enforcement institutions respect those rights as a matter of principle.

This call for citizen “bravery” in defense of civil rights is itself an act of great daring, as its use of the potentially controversial phrase “rights protection” (weiquan) leaves open the possibility for Chinese citizens to assert their rights in the face of public authority in other contexts. More “demand from below” may in fact be what is needed in order to realize the many rights and protections promised by China’s constitution, but it remains to be seen whether more will be done “from the top” to make such assertions of civil rights less risky.


Eliminating Torture Awaits Citizens’ Bravery in Protecting Rights
Editorial, Southern Metropolis Daily, March 2, 2010

    Torture by police in Lushan County, Henan, led to the death of suspect Wang Yahui. This recent admission by the provincial public security department shattered the earlier ridiculous cover-up. The chief of the Lushan County Public Security Bureau has been ordered to resign, and the responsible deputy bureau chief and the head of the criminal investigations unit were sacked, both facing additional disciplinary measures pending investigation of responsibility. The Pingdingshan Public Security Bureau’s deputy chief in charge of criminal investigations and the officer responsible for detention center management are also facing disciplinary measures. Four police officers involved were sent to the procuratorate on suspicion of torture. Earlier, when the deceased’s family members publicly reported to the media that they discovered serious injuries all over his body, the local public security bureau claimed that Wang had “died after drinking hot water” during interrogation.

    Wang Yahui is not the first victim to have had his life taken away by torture, and he probably will not be the last. However, it seems as if cases like this, in which police arbitrarily snuff out human lives in confined spaces and then give increasingly ridiculous explanations, have been occurring with some frequency. There is a barbarism and darkness about these cases, reflected both in the boundlessness of the methods used to extract confessions and the utter stupidity of the mendacity.

    Analysts mostly view the origins of torture from the perspective of law enforcement agencies, seeing its cause in the obsession for confessions or pointing to the lack of effective supervision over judicial powers, including the police, that makes it impossible to check these kinds of “work-related crimes.” These views are not mistaken, as even the silent corpses of these Wang Yahuis can confirm. The mechanisms leading to torture are so simple as to be scary, but the problem is not simply with the agents or institutions of law enforcement; the problem is also that citizens, when faced with police and other legal authority, usually find themselves in a position of [having] inferior rights.

    Everyone knows that even criminal suspects enjoy fundamental human rights and are entitled to lawful treatment. But terrible acts of torture make clear that some police use seemingly lawful methods to carry out great acts of illegal violations. Citizens’ inferior rights appear again and again in their interactions with police. In some ways, though these Wang Yahuis appear to have died because of violent extraction of confessions, in fact they died because of extreme cases of inferior rights in which the protective barrier of rights had been thoroughly destroyed.

    The law categorizes torture as a work-related crime. In rendering a verdict, it is of course necessary to make clear distinctions [between crimes], but in terms of torture cases, in which the right to life is crudely stripped away, it is not because law enforcement agents do not appropriately use the “authority associated with their work duties” but that “work duties” are just an excuse. Actually, in a situation of inferior rights, law enforcement officers engaging in torture do not merely exceed the authority of their positions; they also unleash human evil capable of killing others. This kind of evil is not necessarily something the criminal law can stop, as it is capable of evolving into a dark force that can devour humans.

    It is not only [a problem] in detention centers and interrogation rooms. Actually, in other situations where citizens and police interact, the expected relationship between the two is often out of balance. One-sided emphasis on submission of rights to authority, where police can use coercive powers at will, implies that they can overwhelm civil rights. When these kinds of police powers are repeatedly used in the course of dealings with citizens, it naturally strengthens the idea that police must tame the public. This demonstrates that the situation of inferior rights that exists in torture is not random. There is, in fact, a source for this distortion.

    Upgrading internal supervision of the law enforcement organs is a necessary, but not sufficient, part of eliminating torture. Even more important is implementing the rights of lawyers to fully participate [in the legal process] and carry out defense without obstruction as well as civil rights, such as prohibition [of prosecution] based solely on confession and the right to remain silent. Before and after the deaths of these Wang Yahuis, the legal system has been cleansed repeatedly, but citizens’ assertions of their rights still face restrictions. In this day and age of extensive contacts between police and citizens, we should reverse this situation of inferior civil rights as soon as possible and, thereby, end the illegal use of violence by police.

    Wang Yahui’s death by torture has led to public denunciations of rogue police, condemnations that contain both righteous anger over another’s tragedy and, implicitly, worries about the unsettled condition of one’s own rights. Fear is of no use; the rational thing to do is for each person to recognize the scope of his or her rights and, in dealings with the legal system (including the police), remain firm in protecting those rights and bravely create a situation in which the coercive institutions revere the rights of citizens. This is a viable path, and the inferior state of [civil] rights is alerting us to make more attempts.