China must stop extracting confessions through use of torture

Zhou Zunyou says the case of an uncle and nephew who served 10 years for a crime they did not commit only adds to China's disgracefully long list of wrongful convictions through use of torture

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 May, 2013, 2:55am

The provincial court of Zhejiang recently reversed its 2004 verdict of a suspended death sentence for Zhang Hui and a 15-year prison term for his uncle Zhang Gaoping on charges of rape and murder. The two were cleared due to the inadequacy of the previous evidence and admission of new evidence. They had spent 10 years behind bars.

Shortly afterwards, the Zhejiang police publicly apologised to the pair and their family for botching the investigation. Zhejiang's political-legal commission, a party organ overseeing the work of police, public prosecutors and judges, vowed to carry out a comprehensive investigation and punish anyone found responsible for the wrongful convictions.

This tragedy began with a generous offer of help on May 18, 2003, when the pair, on their way from Anhui province to Shanghai, allowed a 17-year-old village girl to hitch a ride. They dropped her off at her destination in Hangzhou the next morning. Later, she was found dead in a ditch. In April 2004, the intermediate court of Hangzhou sentenced the nephew to death and the uncle to life imprisonment for raping and killing the girl. On appeal, in October 2004, the provincial court of Zhejiang spared the life of the nephew and commuted the uncle's sentence to a 15-year prison term.

After their release, the public have slowly learned the facts behind the wrongful convictions. In media interviews, the uncle revealed the horrifying treatment he had undergone during interrogations: sleep deprivation for seven consecutive days, hunger, forced standing for a long time, forced squatting with his hands cuffed behind his back, pouring water into his nostrils, or stubbing out cigarettes on his skin. The nephew was similarly tortured. Yet, despite their treatment, both denied the charges. When they were sent back to their cells in the detention centre, other detainees managed to force them through acts of violence to sign statements of confession that turned out to have been drafted under police orders.

The torture case triggered a huge public outcry. The anger has been directed specifically at a female detective, Nie Haifen, who was in charge of the case. Ironically, back in 2006, a high-profile CCTV programme reported on the detective's great talent for investigations and labelled her a "genius detective". In the programme, she recounted how she had compelled the pair to confess through the use of tushen, literally "immediate and intensive interrogation", and how she had been able to obtain "unimpeachable" evidence by looking into the details. In hindsight, the tushen was nothing but torture.

This acquittal is just one example of numerous appalling torture cases in recent memory. In 2000, in Yunnan province, policeman Du Peiwu was released after being wrongly jailed for the killing of his wife and her lover after the real murderers were caught. Du had been tortured by other officers into confessing.

In 2010, farmer Zhao Zuohai from Henan province was freed after having spent 10 years in jail. He was tortured into confessing to murder, but was acquitted when the alleged victim turned up alive.

Du and Zhao were lucky; they have their freedom. That was not the case for another alleged murderer, Nie Shubin, a young man from Hebei province, who was executed in 1995 for allegedly raping and murdering a woman. In 2004, another criminal confessed to the crime. But, to this day, the provincial court of Hebei that upheld the death sentence has refused to clear Nie's name, despite petitions from his family and condemnations from legal scholars.

In all of these cases, the men confessed to crimes they did not commit simply because the pain of torture was too much to bear.

In mainland China, extorting confessions through torture has been a constant public concern, although it is explicitly prohibited under various laws, including the Criminal Code, the Criminal Procedure Law, the Judges Law, the Public Procurators Law and the People's Police Law. It is also in gross violation of China's international obligations under international human rights instruments, particularly the UN Convention against Torture that the country has signed and ratified.

Yet, torture to obtain a confession remains widespread.

Compared with the court's attitude in the Nie case, the decision by Zhejiang's provincial court is worthy of high praise. If authorities really want to stop the practice and deter further violations, they should keep their promise to dig out, without hesitation, the rotten apples in the barrel.

Torture cases are a disgrace to the Chinese nation dreaming of a "great revival". If torturers remain at large, the people's hopes for the rule of law, rekindled by President Xi Jinping, will remain nothing more than a fantasy.

Zhou Zunyou, head of the China section at Germany's Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law, is working on a research project on counterterrorism legislation