The New York Times | November 18, 2015
GENEVA — Senior Chinese officials dismissed allegations of the widespread use of torture, responding Wednesday to questions from a United Nations panel by affirming their commitment to eliminating the practice — though with a dearth of details.
In opening remarks before a hearing of the panel, the United Nations Committee Against Torture, China’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva said the “copious data” that the Chinese delegation had provided showed “truly tangible, physical and sustained” achievements in combating torture. The ambassador, Wu Hailong, led a 39-member delegation to the two-day hearing.
Human rights advocates countered that the officials’ evasion of many questions posed in the hearing exhibited a disregard for international norms bordering on contempt. As the hearing progressed, they listened with what they described as a mix of incredulity and derision to the delegation’s responses on interrogation.
Li Wensheng, deputy director of legal affairs for the Public Security Ministry, said that the “Chinese government prohibits torture and prosecutes any personnel of state organs for their torture activities.” He had no details, however, on the number of prosecutions.
As an example of the state’s progress in combating torture, Judge Li Xiao of the Supreme People’s Court told the panel that Chinese courts had found 2,191 people not guilty over a period of two and a half years because of evidence that was insufficient or illegally obtained.
But the delegation provided none of the information sought by the panel on the number of Chinese lawyers who have been detained in the course of a crackdown that started in July or on the charges against them. It did cite a number of new cases of lawyers “disrupting the court order” and the case of Li Qinghong, who “violated the discipline of the court” several times.
The panel had sought details on the number of political detainees in Tibet, an autonomous region of China. But Jin Chunzi, a deputy director of the State Ethnic Affairs Commission, told the panel “there are no such cases of political prisoners.” She added, “The allegation of cruel treatment of suspects from ethnic minority groups is groundless.”
The delegation’s account of prisoners’ treatment evoked a strong reaction. The panel had requested details of solitary confinement practices in Chinese prisons and learned from Mr. Li of the Public Security Ministry that this was “a management matter, but not a punitive measure.”
The panel chairman, Claudio Grossman, said he was surprised to hear it. “It’s certainly perceived as a penalty,” he said.
Panel members had also sought more information about the use of iron interrogation chairs, which human rights groups report are found in almost every police station in China and in which prisoners report being strapped for hours — even days — at a time. The authorities make video and audio recordings of interrogations, the panel was told, so “there is no such thing as torture through the application of interrogation chairs.”
The chairs, known as “tiger chairs,” are needed “to guarantee the safety of the detainee, to prevent the detainee from escaping, from self-harm or attacking other people,” Mr. Li said. “If suspects committed suicide, it was difficult to continue the work.”
To avoid such problems, “the chair is sometimes packaged with soft padding to increase a sense of comfort, to increase safety,” he said.
Hearing that, said Golog Jigme, a Tibetan monk, “I really had to laugh; I looked into his face, and I laughed.” The monk, who has been arrested several times since 2008 and this year received asylum in Switzerland, said he had spent months in such chairs and still bore the scars. “For my safety,” he said, “they even hung me from the chair.”
“I’m speechless and shocked,” he said in an interview after the hearing. “It is incredible that a country like China, which is highly regarded in the international community, would come here and use this platform to tell lies.”
Human rights groups had much the same conclusion. “China was saying to a key U.N. mechanism that we will show up, but we are not going to comply with this convention,” Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch, said. “It’s not a small thing for China to be so dismissive of agreed international law and procedure.”
By NICK CUMMING-BRUCE