China’s web of torture and its critics

Beijing faces international scrutiny after rights activists point to continued detentions and deaths.

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The Chinese government continues to stonewall on the detention and abuse of political prisoners [Kevin Holden/Al Jazeera]

Beijing, China – Despite the abolition of communist reeducation through labour camps, China’s rulers continue to allow security agents to detain government critics within a vast network of secret gulags and psychiatric facilities spread across the People’s Republic, according to an international coalition of human rights monitors.

Torture of dissidents pervades China’s web of black jails and red prisons, with no genuine government effort to end violence against those held or even to punish security officers who bring about the death of detained rights activists, said Victor Clemens, a researcher at Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

“Government critics may be more vulnerable to torture and mistreatment – largely in reprisal for the “politically sensitive” work they do – and it is widespread enough, according to our advocacy and research, to conclude that it is commonplace,” Clemens explained. 

His group, a coalition of Western and Chinese rights defenders, has outlined many of these abuses in a brief submitted to the United Nations Committee against Torture. 

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‘Modern-day dungeons’

Beijing’s leadership ratified the UN’s Convention against Torture in 1988, and the use of violence throughout the Chinese legal system will be scrutinised later this year.

With the pending UN review, Clemens said, “The [Chinese] government has already been making statements related to stopping torture, though these appear to be political attempts to improve the image of China in this respect, rather than reflecting effective steps to change practices.”

Chinese security agents depend on modern-day dungeons that crisscross the country to hold everyone from anti-torture campaigners to micro-bloggers who dare to openly criticise Communist Party rule, said Liu Feiyue, founder of Civil Rights & Livelihood Watch, based in the central Chinese province of Hubei. 

At the same time, Liu added, increasingly sophisticated surveillance tools are helping Beijing create “a high-tech dictatorship”.

“All citizens [of the People’s Republic] are now inhabitants of the ‘1984’ project,” he said.

The government has begun sending “thought police” into university classrooms to search for instructors advocating Western ideals on freedom of speech or constitutional democratic rule, and has been building up its army of cyber soldiers to spy on Web platforms and e-mail systems for signs of opposition.

State-controlled video cameras are being deployed in temples and mosques, public squares and even discotheques to keep constant track of the masses.

“‘Big Brother is watching you’ has now become China’s reality,” said Liu.

Over the past year, he noted, “A large number of human rights lawyers, academics, reporters, editors, writers, NGO activists, human rights defenders and dissidents have been arrested.”

Campaign of repression

The scale and duration of the current campaign of repression, Liu said, make it the worst since the People’s Liberation Army’s attack on pro-democracy protesters a generation ago in 1989 at Tiananmen Square, which was followed by mass arrests.

Yet Huang Qi, a human rights activist in western China, said the government’s recent abolition of the reeducation through labour system marked a major breakthrough. The system provided Chinese security agents with one channel of arbitrary detention to send dissidents, Buddhist monks and underground Christians into a China-wide archipelago of gulags without the formalities of a trial or access to a lawyer.

But Chinese Human Rights Defenders has discovered that some of these facilities are still run as labour camps, now called “legal study centres”.

Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, added: “The Chinese authorities continue to make use of multiple forms of arbitrary detention,” including black jails and mental hospitals.

Chinese Human Rights Defenders, working with Liu Feiyue inside China, recently reported: “Chinese authorities continued to use involuntary psychiatric detention in 2014 to silence and punish their critics, as well as petitioners who tried to expose abuses and lodge grievances.”

Forcibly committing activists, who are subject to being shackled, tortured and given psychotropic drugs, is now being used as an alternative to the red reeducation camps, explained Clemens.

Since joining the Convention against Torture, the Chinese government has routinely maintained it is taking measures to eradicate the rare instances of violence that occur against detainees.

But in one communique to the Chinese authorities, the 10 independent legal experts who monitor compliance with the anti-torture treaty stated they were “deeply concerned about the continued allegations, corroborated by numerous Chinese legal sources, of routine and widespread use of torture and ill-treatment of suspects in police custody, especially to extract confessions”.  

China’s rulers ratified the anti-torture treaty just months before launching an armed assault on peaceful pro-democracy protesters gathered at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Since then they have paradoxically maintained that secret prisons and political persecution simply do not exist in the People’s Republic.

History of violations

In April of 1990, even as martial law troops and police led a nationwide dragnet for leaders of the crushed democracy movement, a Chinese delegation told the Committee against Torture: “There are no prisoners of conscience or political prisoners in China.”

In a meeting at the UN’s Palais des Nations in Switzerland, one member of the Chinese delegation stated: “Following the anti-government disturbances in 1989, there had been no summary arrests or detentions of peaceful demonstrators, summary executions or widespread torture. The persons arrested had not been those who peacefully exercised their rights as citizens, but a handful of persons engaged in anti-government rioting.”           

Although the Chinese government has continued to stonewall on the torture of political prisoners and even the Tiananmen crackdown, the Committee against Torture, for a quarter of a century, has consistently pressed Beijing on these violations of the anti-torture treaty.

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“Despite repeated requests from groups of relatives of persons killed, arrested or disappeared on or following the 4 June 1989 Beijing suppression of the Democracy Movement, the Committee is concerned about the lack of investigations into these events, the failure to inform family members of the fate of their relatives, and regrets that those responsible for excessive use of force have not faced any sanctions,” stated one communique.

To comply with China’s treaty obligations, it added, Beijing “should conduct a full and impartial investigation into the suppression of the Democracy Movement in Beijing in June 1989, provide information on the persons who are still detained from that period … and prosecute those found responsible for excessive use of force, torture and other ill-treatment”.

Instead, Beijing has persecuted the victims of Tiananmen and their supporters, according to rights monitors in China and the US.

Ding Zilin, the mother of a 17-year-old boy who was killed by People’s Liberation Army troops advancing on Tiananmen Square in June of 1989, is still subject to illegal house arrest. Pu Zhiqiang, a rights lawyer who pressed the government to apologise for the military suppression of the pro-democracy movement, is now facing trial, said Victor Clemens.

Yet rights activist Huang Qi, who was imprisoned for five years for calling for compensation for those killed or jailed for taking part in the Tiananmen protests, predicted the Communist Party will ultimately acknowledge its massive mistake in deploying tanks and troops against unarmed demonstrators.

During Huang Qi’s imprisonment for “subversion”, according to the US Congressional Executive Commission on China, “Authorities reportedly beat him and denied him medicine.” 

Despite being tortured and jailed, Huang still said he is confident the government will one day recognise that student protesters – rather than the troops who crushed them – were the real heroes of Tiananmen, as part of overall moves toward halting the imprisonment of democrats and the party-ordered torture of its critics.

But he conceded this sea change might lie in China’s far-off future.

Meanwhile, Clemens of Chinese Human Rights Defenders said the Beijing leadership will face its next encounter with the international legal experts who make up the Committee against Torture in Geneva in November. 

Source: Al Jazeera