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China: Impunity for torturers continues - despite changes in the law

May 4, 2000

Today hearings on the report regarding China’s implementation of the U.N. Convention Against Torture begin at the United Nations in Geneva. The report was submitted by the Chinese government to the Committee that monitors this treaty. In a shadow report to the Committee, Human Rights in China (HRIC) finds that the Chinese government has failed in its obligations under the Convention since it has ignored the repeated demands of scholars and activists inside and outside the country to address the legal and institutional deficiencies that are the root causes of torture.

"The Chinese government asserts that torture is a problem of bad officials, but an even greater problem is bad law full of loopholes and a government that appears to believe that the end of cracking down on crime effectively justifies virtually any means," said Sophia Woodman, HRIC Research Director.

The government has demonstrated a basic unwillingness to submit to the international scrutiny required by the ratification of such a treaty and implicit to being a member of the United Nations. Given the scale and severity of the problem of torture and ill-treatment in China—a fact confirmed not only by the recent horrific experiences of Falungong members across the country, but also in statements by high-ranking officials, such as the Minister of Public Security—the government report is completely inadequate. It does not give any information at all on the prevalence of torture or related information. For example, the prosecution of torturers is not sufficiently addressed, even though some such information has been made public in a number of books and articles in China.

Another indication of this unwillingness is the Chinese government’s stalled arrangements for the visit of the Special Rapporteur on Torture, Sir Nigel Rodley. The Chinese government has delayed plans for the visit because the Special Rapporteur has insisted that his trip to China be conducted just as his trips to any other country--with the freedom to visit facilities of his choice and to speak with inmates privately. Ironically, China’s invitation to Rodley was much touted as an "achievement" of the bilateral human rights dialogues in pushing the Chinese government towards "cooperation" with the UN human rights machinery.

The Convention Against Torture sets clear legal standards that member states are required to incorporate into their domestic law. China ratified the Convention in 1988 and has already appeared twice before the Committee, most recently in 1996. Yet according to HRIC’s assessment of current laws, policies and practice, China has failed to act upon the majority of the Committee’s 1996 recommendations, and has not incorporated the definition of torture contained in the Convention into Chinese law.

"Among the most notable and egregious omissions is that evidence obtained through torture continues to be admissible in court in China today," said Sophia Woodman, HRIC Research Director. "As Chinese scholars have pointed out, this means that the prohibition against torture is not worth the paper it is written on."

So despite a small increase in transparency regarding torture in China in recent years, persons acting in an official capacity who torture and ill-treat others in violation of the Convention generally do so with impunity. This is because the government has failed to establish effective mechanisms to prevent such abuse and to hold violators accountable. The minimal safeguards now available in China’s Criminal Procedure Law for the rights of detainees contain so many loopholes that police can ignore them at will. These minimal safeguards do not apply at all to people in administrative detention. Chinese law also lacks a clear presumption of innocence and the right to remain silent to avoid self-incrimination. Torturers are generally only prosecuted if their acts result in serious injury or death.

Many scholars in China have recommended that the PRC adopt some of the basic principles contained in the Convention--such as an exclusionary rule and the right against self-incrimination--into its criminal law in order to bring the Chinese legal system into compliance with international human rights law. But the government has mostly ignored their demands.

For the full text of Human Rights in China’s report, see "Report" session on "Impunity for Torturers Continues Despite Changes in the Law" at our website.

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