BEIJING, Dec. 2 -- The first U.N. investigator granted access to
China's vast network of prisons and labor camps said Friday he had
documented widespread use of torture despite government efforts to
obstruct his probe. He added that abuse of prisoners appeared to be
Manfred Nowak, the U.N. special rapporteur on torture, said
Chinese officials had informed him that the nation's highest court would
begin handling all new death penalty appeals starting Jan. 1. That
long-promised reform is expected to sharply reduce the use of capital
punishment in a country that executes more prisoners every year than the
rest of the world combined.
But Nowak said the Chinese government would have to overhaul its
criminal laws, grant judges and defense attorneys greater powers and
abolish efforts to "re-educate" inmates before it can eliminate torture
in its prisons and meet international standards.
"The use of torture, though on the decline, particularly in urban
areas, nevertheless remains widespread in China," he said at a news
conference after a 13-day investigation involving unscheduled visits to
nine detention facilities. "There is a need for much more structural
Nowak said detainees he interviewed described being subjected to
electric shocks and beatings by police officers under pressure to
extract confessions, and to a range of punishments that leave no
physical bruises and thus may not be illegal under Chinese law. The
methods included sleep deprivation and being forced to stand, sit or
squat in uncomfortable positions for hours and sometimes days at a time,
His conclusions were likely to upset the Chinese government, which
agreed to the probe after a decade of lobbying by the U.N. Commission on
Human Rights and by the United States and other foreign governments.
China had repeatedly rejected the U.N. demands for unannounced
visits to detention centers and private meetings with detainees,
standard conditions for the torture investigations the body conducts.
But the government relented last December as part of a broader effort to
work more closely with the United Nations and address international
criticism of its human rights record.
Nowak said the government complied "in principle" with its promise
to allow him to meet privately with any detainee in any detention
facility in the country, a remarkable development given that China's
secretive and powerful security ministries had long resisted outside
scrutiny of the prisons and labor camps they manage.
But Nowak complained that police and state security officers
obstructed his efforts to meet with former prisoners, family members,
lawyers and human rights activists who were not in prison. He said that
people across the country trying to meet him were detained and that
undercover agents often followed, photographed and eavesdropped on him
when he tried to meet with others.
"I was promised freedom of movement and inquiry, but there was
serious interference," he said, describing the harassment as a violation
of the agreement he reached with the Chinese. But he expressed
satisfaction with his access to prisoners and the facilities he chose in
Beijing, Tibet and Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province, home to the
restive Muslim Uighur population that has been the target of a prolonged
crackdown against ethnic separatism.
Nowak said, however, that he encountered "a palpable level of fear
and self-censorship" worse than anything he had seen in more than two
decades of similar experience.
Of the 30 or so detainees he interviewed, Nowak said in an
interview, about half agreed to speak only after requesting absolute
confidentiality. He said that others refused to answer questions or said
they had forgotten the details of how they had been treated, and that
some appeared "just brainwashed." He recalled one prison cell with 11
inmates who were afraid even to look up at him.
Among those who did agree to speak on the record was He Depu, a
democracy activist who described being forced to lie still on his back
in a cold room with his hands extended in front of him for 85 days.
Another was Yang Jianli, the Boston-based dissident whose imprisonment
has been protested by Congress and who described being subjected to
electric shocks and beatings before he eventually suffered a stroke.
Nowak voiced particularly strong objections to the government's
policy of trying to "re-educate" inmates, in its terminology, including
those who have not been convicted of any crime, with political classes,
forced labor and torture.
"It is an attempt to change the personality of an individual," he
said, "and it is degrading treatment that strikes at the core of
individual dignity and humanity."