WASHINGTON—China’s prison system commonly subjects detainees to mental torment rather than physical abuse, according to a United Nations special rapporteur, although reforms are under way.
Manfred Nowak, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, told an Open Society Institute gathering here that authorities in China set out to “break the will” of convicts and detainees to make them believe that they have committed a crime.
“It’s much more mental torture—what they call 'reeducation.' That is on the one hand reeducation-through-labor camps. If you go in there it is just unbelievable what kind of brainwashing those people have to go through,” he said.
Most inmates at reeducation-through-labor camps, Nowak said, are members of the outlawed Falun Gong religious movement, sex workers, and others who have exhibited “unsocial behavior” that can be held for up to three or four years without being convicted at trial.
“But this policy of reeducation is not just in the specific camps—it’s everywhere. Of course, if you are convicted ... without having confessed, they still want you to confess afterwards,” he said.
“They want to reeducate you so that you finally see that you have done something wrong. And that means trying to break the will of the people. If it didn’t work during trial, during police custody with torture or whatever, then they try to break your will afterwards.”
Nowak said he has met inmates who said they had eventually confessed to crimes they had not committed or acknowledged guilt in order to alleviate pressure from authorities.
“I have met quite a number ... of people who told me, ‘I just finally gave up, because if I finally say 'Yes, I did something wrong,' then I get certain privileges. I can be earlier released.’”
Others, Novak said, are kept in jail without basic rights, sometimes indefinitely.
“You have no privileges—that means also [no] contact with family. All that will be reduced or it will be improved if you finally say, ‘I did something wrong,’” he said.
Nowak said that on previous trips to China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), he had interviewed members of the ethnic Uyghur community who had been subjected to similar forms of mental abuse in detention.
“In Urumqi, I visited various detention facilities, primarily to speak with Uyghurs who have been there as what I call political prisoners. That means for crimes of … ‘separatism,’ and in particular ‘disclosing state secrets’ to foreign powers,” he said.
He recalled interviewing exiled Uyghur dissident Rebiya Kadeer in Geneva following her release from prison in 2005 after serving time for "leaking state secrets" to a visiting U.S. official.
“It’s not physical torture, but it’s terrible mental torture for two years … from morning to evening, you wake up, have breakfast, and then you are just sitting, or kneeling actually, in the room alone—total isolation,” he said.
“In every corner of the room is one female prison guard standing in order to watch you that you are not moving around or doing anything else. You’re not allowed to speak, not even to the prison guards. You just have to sit there in order to contemplate and realize what you did wrong. Then you have lunch and [it continues in] the evening, and that is going on for two years.”
Nowak said that although Kadeer was never physically tortured, the mental anguish she suffered was almost unbearable.
He said Kadeer was also aware of other captives being subjected to physical abuse, including a form of the now-infamous practice of "waterboarding" or simulated drowning, which he was able to verify through a later investigation.
“I met quite a number of others. They were terribly scared. It was very, very difficult—these Uyghur prisoners, both post- [and] pre-trial, and convicted—to really make an interview,” he said.
“I think that almost none of them were published because I never was allowed to. And they were very scared to really give me any kind of information. Of course now after last year’s event, I sent quite a number of urgent appeals and [received] no substantive response,” he said, referring to deadly ethnic riots that rocked the XUAR capital of Urumqi in July 2009.
Those clashes, which according to official estimates left around 200 people dead, were sparked by a Uyghur demonstration July 5 to call for an investigation into Uyghur deaths in southern China.
But despite China’s record of abuse against detainees and inmates, Nowak said he had also seen Beijing make substantial progress in enacting legislation to combat the problem.
He pointed to the introduction of video recordings in interrogation rooms which must now be shown in court proceedings as proof that statements were not extracted from detainees under duress.
“There are, I think to be fair, quite a number of laws have been enacted that are not only fig leaves … [These laws are implemented] only in a few areas—certainly not in the whole country—but they show positive results,” he said.
“China has more, than many other countries, of cases where people actually have been brought to justice for torture … I would be happy to have in any other country so many cases where people have been subjected to criminal punishment because of having tortured—sometimes tortured to death—people.”
Nowak also applauded China for requiring all death sentences to be reviewed by the Supreme People’s Court, but he called on Beijing to make public the number of death sentences and executions ordered each year.
Amnesty International has said that thousands of executions "were likely to have taken place" last year in China, where information on the death penalty remains a state secret.
The group said that estimates based on publicly available information grossly underrepresented the actual number of people killed by the state or sentenced to death.
The country is believed to be the world's leading executioner.
Original reporting by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.