China's Top Court Bans Torture, Forced Confessions

2013-11-21
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A file photo of the Supreme People's Court building in Beijing.
A file photo of the Supreme People's Court building in Beijing.
AFP

China's highest court on Thursday called for an end to torture to extract confessions from suspects, as part of a package of legal reforms announced by the ruling Chinese Communist Party last week.

"Interrogation by torture in extracting a confession, as well as the use of freezing, hunger, drying, scorching, fatigue and other illegal methods to obtain a confession from the accused must be eliminated," the court said in a tweet on its verified account on the Twitter-like service Sina Weibo.

The move came one week after the party said in a top communique that it would scrap the much-criticized "re-education through labor" system and reduce the scope of the death penalty.

Rights activists and lawyers commonly report abuses of police power in China's legal system, which is heavily controlled by local party officials and police, and influenced by state-backed business interests at every level.

Beijing-based rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan said the guidelines were largely symbolic, as Chinese law already forbids forced confessions and torture.

"If they really want to solve this, the most effective thing to do would be to protect the right to remain silent, as well as not admitting verbal confessions as evidence in court," Liu said.

Under Chinese law, defendants have the right to remain silent under police questioning and cross-examination in court.

But experts say this right is rarely upheld in practice.

Liu said police should also transfer suspects to detention centers immediately after their arrest, rather than keep them locked in police stations, where torture is more likely.

But he said China's law enforcement agencies lacked awareness of human rights issues.

"When they detain someone, they beat them up," Liu said.

Independence needed

Hangzhou-based rights lawyer Wang Cheng said the ruling might result in a slightly more lenient climate for people trying to overturn miscarriages of justice, however.

"The courts in China haven't enjoyed a very high reputation in recent years, and there are usually a comparatively large number of votes against the Supreme Court's annual work report each year at the National People's Congress," Wang said, in a reference to the country's annual parliament, which rarely opposes the official party line on any topic.

"There has been some loud criticism of the situation regarding trumped-up charges, framing and forced confessions, which is generally seen as very serious," he said.

He said that if the authorities continued to issue better guidelines, this could eventually have an impact on the way the legal system operates.

"But...the problem in China is that...we won't see a fundamental resolution to this problem before we set up an independent judicial system," Wang said.

Lawyer Yuan Yulai said that the Supreme Court guidelines were still a long way from addressing how the legal system was run on the ground.

"I think we're still a long way from judicial independence, and there are many more things that need to be done," he said.

"The core issue is whether the courts will be allowed to act as supervisors to the government, or whether they will carry on protecting government interests," Yuan said.

He said no reforms ordered by the party leadership would have much effect until the core issue of independence was addressed.

"Otherwise, any reform will just be chasing its own tail, and won't bring about any real change," he said.

'Framework for communication'

However, he said courts at ever level in the system would likely follow suit with their own guidelines now that the Supreme Court had spoken out on the issue.

"At least this provides a framework for more communication between the courts and society, a channel for communication," he said.

In a judicial system that lacks independence, forced confessions are commonplace, while torture is also frequently reported by inmates, rights groups say.

According to statistics from the U.S. State Department, Chinese courts currently find 99.9 percent of defendants guilty.

Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Pan Jiaqing and Bi Zimo for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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