Thursday, April 12, 2012

Solitary Confinement with Chinese Characteristics

Solitary confinement was the theme of a side event held during the 19th session of the Human Rights Council on March 6, 2012. It is a widespread and global practice, but the event focused most extensively on abuses in the United States. China was given no verbal mention but was referenced once in a report that served as a catalyst for the event. In his August 2011 report to the United Nations General Assembly (hereafter, the interim report), Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan E. Méndez mentioned China as an example of a country where solitary confinement is used against people considered risks to national security—in this case a woman was allegedly held under solitary confinement for two years.

Her case was previously written up by the special rapporteur’s predecessor, Manfred Nowak, who was invited by the Chinese government to conduct a mission to China in late 2005. During the mission, Nowak noted several records and claims of solitary confinement in prisons, detention centers, and reeducation through labor (RTL) facilities that spanned from three weeks to two years—all exceeding domestic and international limits. His report also includes notes from a November 2005 interview with rights activist and petitioner Mao Hengfeng (毛恒凤) detailing allegations of torture by police. Eight months after the interview, Mao claimed to have been held in solitary confinement in Shanghai Women’s Prison for 70 days.

The United Nations Office at Geneva, Switzerland
Defining Solitary Confinement

The interim report defines solitary confinement as “the physical and social isolation of individuals who are confined to their cells for 22 to 24 hours a day.” It is called a “harsh measure” that is “contrary” to rehabilitation and reintegration and “may cause serious psychological and physiological adverse effects.” Research suggests that 15 days is the point at which some harmful psychological effects can become “irreversible.” Méndez, Nowak, and the two dozen international experts who authored the Istanbul Statement, a 2007 statement on the increasing global use and documented harm of solitary confinement, all conclude that solitary confinement can amount to torture in violation of several UN treaties and rules.

Solitary Confinement in China

China officially sanctions solitary confinement (禁闭) as a disciplinary measure that may be carried out for seven to fifteen days against prisoners and for no more than ten days against RTL detainees. RTL regulations, but not the Prison Law, call for “civilized management” of those in solitary confinement, including provisions requiring food and water, sanitation and medical care, and handling complaints in a timely manner. In line with international standards, they also stipulate that those in solitary confinement be given no less than one hour of daily activity outside their cell.

Residential Surveillance as Solitary Confinement

But before coercive measures like detention and imprisonment, for some, there is residential surveillance (监视居住). Despite its name, it is not always carried out in one’s home and is not often premised on the remote monitoring “surveillance” implies. It is an ill-defined, ostensibly investigative measure that is bound by few witnesses and few procedural protections.

Ching Cheong spent 105 days under residential surveillance
in 2005. He is pictured here with his wife Mary Lau.

The measure garnered international attention last August when China’s National People’s Congress proposed the addition of what would be called “disappearance clauses” to the Criminal Procedure Law (CPL). The provisions would have allowed police to hold suspects under residential surveillance for up to six months in a “designated residence” without notifying suspects’ families. A revised version of the amendments was passed into law in March 2012, requiring family notification but removing requirements that notices to families specify the grounds and whereabouts of the detention

Under residential surveillance, a person is kept in his domicile or a designated residence and prohibited from leaving or meeting with others without the permission of public security for up to six months. The revised CPL, effective in 2013, singles out suspects in cases of endangering state security, terrorism, and serious bribery as prime candidates for being held in designated residences. Such places are chosen by public security and exclude detention facilities and places where cases are handled (专门的办案场所).

Below are two accounts providing evidence that the conditions of residential surveillance in China often constitute not only solitary confinement, but the type of prolonged solitary confinement that amounts to torture under international law.

Ching Cheong: 105 Days

Veteran Hong Kong journalist Ching Cheong (程翔) was held under residential surveillance for 105 days in 2005. He was taken into custody on state secrets charges and eventually sentenced for espionage. In a recently released book chronicling the time he spent in custody (千日無悔:我的心路歷程 or My 1000-Day Ordeal—A Spiritual Journey), Ching writes that residential surveillance is tantamount to solitary confinement and psychological torture. He has committed himself to advocating for the abolition of solitary confinement in China.

Blinded by dark glasses and not questioned or “checked in,” Ching was taken to a guest house (招待所) in Beijing. He was put in a room that measured about 80 square feet, or 7 square meters, including a toilet. The room was typical of a low-grade guesthouse, only without TV, radio, reading or writing materials, and natural light. The room was perpetually lit by two light bulbs clustered on the ceiling and guarded by pairs of plainclothes guards who watched him “reflect on what he had done,” use the toilet, and shower. The guards were not allowed to talk to Ching or tell him their names.

(Paragraph 53 of the interim report states that access to “meaningful human contact” is essential to the psychological health of detainees in solitary confinement—meaningful human contact may involve being able to chat with guards; contact the outside world; and have access to reading material, TV, or radio.)

Ching was not let out for exercise or fresh air. He left the room only for interrogation, which happened at most once every three days and at one point, once in three weeks. Interrogation was virtually the only time Ching was allowed near the door or outside his room, the only time he saw sunlight—the windows of the interrogation room were covered by thin curtains, while heavy blankets shrouded the windows of his room—and the only time he had conversations with anyone but himself.

(Paragraph 52 of the interim report states that prisoners “shall have at least one hour of suitable exercise in the open air daily.” Paragraph 50 states that windows and light are of “critical importance to the adequate treatment of detainees in solitary confinement.”)

Ching believes that the stress induced by residential surveillance is often used to extort confessions in contravention of Article 43 of the CPL. He thus argues that the practice of residential surveillance itself should be outlawed in China. Under the stress of residential surveillance, Ching was plagued by insomnia, constipation, arrhythmia, and suicidal thoughts. He eventually made a statement, with several caveats, that investigators took along with his willingness to cooperate as a full confession.

(Paragraph 73 of the interim report states that “When solitary confinement is used intentionally during pretrial detention as a technique for the purpose of obtaining information or a confession, it amounts to torture.”)

As a reward for his “confession,” Ching’s wife was notified of his whereabouts, one month after he had disappeared.

(The amended CPL, effective January 1, 2013, states that when suspects are put under residential surveillance in a designated residence, their family shall be notified within 24 hours.)

Ching would stay under residential surveillance with no visitors for two and a half months more; none of which was credited to his prison sentence.

(While the Supreme People’s Court has interpreted the CPL to exclude residential surveillance as a means to reduce time served on the controversial grounds that it is not a complete deprivation of liberty, the amended CPL will require that it is credited towards completion of a fixed-term prison sentence. Time served for sentences of fixed-term imprisonment should be reduced by one day for every two days of residential surveillance, compared with a one-to-one deduction for time spent in criminal detention.)

He Depu: 85 Days

He Depu spent 85 days in residential
surveillance in 2002.
Photo credit: China Human Rights Defenders
Taken into custody on suspicion of inciting subversion, veteran democracy activist He Depu (何德普) was held under residential surveillance for 85 days starting in November 2002. In an open letter responding to the “disappearance clauses” proposed last year, He recounts the psychological torture of isolation, monotony, and indoor confinement, as well as the physical torture of beatings and the denial of food, hygiene, and medical attention. He described residential surveillance as “inhumane” and compared to prison and detention, “much more brutal.”

Blindfolded, He was taken to a designated residence, stripped of his clothes, and forced to stay in a fixed position on a wooden bed every day for 85 days. He needed approval to get up and was beaten and verbally abused for moving his wrists and ankles, leaving him frequently spread-eagled in a room with no heater or windows. His guards stood at his bed posts for two-hour shifts, and as his bed sores multiplied, denied him medical attention. He was not permitted to shower and ate daily fare of two small steamed buns (馒头) and either three slices of onion or five slices of turnip.

He never “confessed,” but like Ching Cheong, found interrogation to be the most welcome part of residential surveillance.

He’s wife was not notified that he was in custody until 11 months after he disappeared.

Ending Solitary Confinement

In 2008, then UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak said that solitary confinement should be used “only as a last resort.” In 2011, current Special Rapporteur Juan E. Méndez recommended that countries “put an end to” solitary confinement used during pretrial detention, “abolish” solitary confinement as an extortion technique, and “abolish” indefinite solitary confinement. Speaking of his personal experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, US Senator John McCain had this to say of the practice:
It’s an awful thing, solitary. It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment. Having no one else to rely on, to share confidences with, to seek counsel from, you begin to doubt your judgment and your courage.