(New York) - The Chinese government should investigate four prominent human rights lawyers' claims that they were tortured by police officers while in detention, Human Rights Watch said today.
On April 6, 2014, after being released from administrative detention, the lawyers made public the torture they had experienced. The lawyers had been detained while trying to assist members of the Falun Gong movement who are being held in illegal detention facilities known as "black jails."
"The torture of human rights lawyers in police custody isn't just an assault against the individuals concerned, but also against the legal profession," said Sophie Richardson, China director. "Without an independent investigation and accountability for the abuse, the government's rule of law rhetoric rings very hollow."
On March 20, lawyers Tang Jitian, Jiang Tianyong, Wang Cheng, and Zhang Junjie went to a "legal education center" in Jiansanjiang, Heilongjiang Province. Such "centers" are a form of unlawful detention facility or "black jail," which targets Falun Gong practitioners and petitioners. The lawyers were accompanying family members of Falun Gong practitioners who have been held without access to a trial or judge in the facility. After being denied access to the facility and the practitioners, the lawyers went to a nearby hotel. The next morning, men in plainclothes broke into the lawyers' hotel rooms, and, refusing to identify themselves, forced the lawyers into unmarked vehicles. The lawyers believe these men were police.
The lawyers were brought to the Daxing Public Security Sub-Bureau. According to the account given by the lawyers after their release, police officers slapped and hit Zhang with water bottles, and pushed him to the ground. The three other lawyers were hung up, with wrists bound with a rope, arms twisted backwards and feet barely touching the ground. The police beat and kicked the lawyers' chests, heads, backs, and legs. The police threatened to "dig a hole in the ground and bury" one of the lawyers. The police then sentenced the lawyers to between five and fifteen days of administrative detention. Zhang, who was given five days of detention, was diagnosed at a hospital after his release with three fractured lumbar bones.
Human rights lawyers have in recent years been targeted through physical abuse, harassment of family members, or politically motivated professional sanctions for their work. Wang, Tang, and Jiang have been subjected to disbarment, one of the most common ways of harassing human rights lawyers, due to work representing clients in "sensitive" political cases. Tang and Jiang were forcibly disappeared and tortured during the "Jasmine Crackdown" of 2011, when dozens of human rights defenders were detained and abused as authorities cracked down on dissent.
On March 31, the Jiansanjiang Public Security Bureau issued a statement claiming that the four had been punished for "inciting" Falun Gong practitioners and their families to "gather in crowds to create disturbances" and "shout slogans of evil cult" in front of the legal education center, and for "making up facts online."
The Chinese government has yet to formally acknowledge the existence of black jails. During a United Nations review of human rights performance in 2009, the Chinese government declared that China had "no black jails." Yet, Human Rights Watch, other rights groups and the domestic press have documented their existence across the country, as well as the use of torture and other forms of cruel treatment in these unlawful facilities.
"The Chinese government should admit to the existence of black jails, and then move swiftly to close them," said Richardson.
China is a party to the Convention against Torture and Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment. The use of physical abuse by police officers is prohibited under Chinese law. In recent years, the Chinese government has instituted a number of new measures to address the problem of torture in the investigation of crimes. The latest of such efforts were revisions to the Criminal Procedural Law, which became effective January 1, 2013, that aimed to prevent coerced confessions. These measures included ensuring detainees are given adequate rest and food, and that confessions and statements obtained through coercion are excluded in judicial proceedings. Despite these measures, the use of torture remains widespread and officials responsible are rarely held legally accountable.
Human Rights Watch calls on the Heilongjiang Provincial Police Bureau and the Provincial Procuratorate to investigate the lawyers' allegations, make public its investigations, and hold perpetrators accountable under the law. Human Rights Watch also calls on the All China Lawyers Association, a quasi-official national bar association under the Ministry of Justice, to reinstate the membership of Wang, Tang, and Jiang, and to investigate the lawyers' claims and "safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of lawyers," as pledged in the association's charter.
"Just a few weeks ago Chinese officials went before the United Nations Human Rights Council and insisted that there is no harassment of human rights lawyers," said Richardson. "Proving good faith on that matter requires an immediate, independent investigation, and that targeting of lawyers for doing their work ends now."