Commenting on his findings from a ground-breaking visit, Manfred Nowak, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, said that while torture was declining in urban areas, it remained a widespread practice nationwide.

He added that his team had been under frequent surveillance during their two-week trip that included visits to Tibet and the northwestern Muslim-majority region of Xinjiang.

The tour was the first granted to his office by the Chinese authorities in a decade.

Speaking in Beijing, Nowak said there was also evidence that the authorities had intimidated victims and family members the UN team had tried to interview.

"My preliminary conclusion is that as far as the amount of torture, I would recognise a certain decline ... but nevertheless torture remains widespread in the country"

Manfred Nowak ,
UN Special Rapporteur on Torture

"My preliminary conclusion is that as far as the amount of torture, I would recognise a certain decline ... but, nevertheless, torture remains widespread in the country," he told a news conference.

"Criminal procedures need to come into line with international standards of fair trial," he said.

Beijing has been grappling with a series of cases in which people have been wrongly convicted after giving forced confessions, a practice rights groups say happens too often.

China outlawed torture in 1996, but human rights groups say many people are tortured to death each year in police custody.

Authorities usually tell relatives they died of natural causes or committed suicide.

Murder 'confession'

China's parliament passed a bill earlier this year mandating punishment for police who torture detainees during interrogation.

"I observed a palpable level of fear and self-censorship of those detainees I interviewed"

Manfred Nowak, 
UN Special Rapporteur on Torture

In April, it freed a man who spent 11 years in jail for allegedly murdering his wife after the woman turned up alive.

The man, She Xianglin, said he had confessed to the crime under torture.

China's Foreign Ministry had said it was paying great attention to the visit, and it could be successful with hard work by both sides.

In a statement, Nowak said a number of family members and victims the team tried to visit were "intimidated by security personnel, placed under police surveillance, were told not to
meet the special rapporteur, or were physically prevented from meeting with him".

"I observed a palpable level of fear and self-censorship of those detainees I interviewed," he said.

China is home to the world's biggest prison population and has a legal system the US State Department says is characterised by mistreatment of prisoners and an "egregious" lack of due process in the use of the death penalty.

China signed the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights in 1998, but has yet to ratify the treaty seen as a cornerstone of global rights law.