HUNTSVILLE, Texas – China’s highest court has officially banned torture as a means of extracting confessions from suspects as of November 21. The ban was published a week after another set of legal reforms was announced by the Chinese Communist party.
State-run news agency Xinhua said that torture had been a practice of “widespread concern” for many years. It was used by law enforcement to wrap up cases more quickly through forced testimony or confessions.
The death of Chinese official Yu Qiyi is a recent high-profile case connected with this issue. While being questioned by Communist Party investigators in April, Qiyi’s head was submerged under water repeatedly.
He was undergoing interrogation in regards to his alleged connection to a corrupt land deal. Qiyi died after going through the interrogation. This led to the jailing of the investigators who were found guilty of “intentional injury,” according to reports.
Events similar to what happened in April were referenced in the court document, which detailed many issues that the Chinese legal system was plagued by. These troubles included torture by the police such as that of Yu Qiyi, concocted evidence, faulty forensic investigations and a tendency for judges to be swayed by official pressure or inflamed public opinion.
The court’s instructions clearly stated that a defendant could not be found guilty on the sole basis of testimony from the defendant without any other evidence. Furthermore, testimony obtained through painful manipulation obstructs justice and is therefore inadmissible in court.
“Testimony of the defendant acquired through torture, freezing, starvation, baking in the sun, roasting, exhaustion and other illegal collection methods shall be excluded,” the instructions said.
While the document discussed the injustices of torture, it did not detail specific punishments for violations of the new rules. What it did do was demonstrate some official effort to end gross miscarriages of justice which batter public confidence in courts, according to Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher for the advocacy group called Human Rights Watch.
“It reads like a catalog of the defects of China’s criminal justice system,” Bequelin said. “It’s generally a reiteration, but it reflects some level of the commitment by the leadership to actually curb the most glaring defects of the criminal justice system.”
Joshua Rosenzweig, a researcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who studies human rights and criminal legal issues in China, said that the demands in the document have “ambiguous force.”
“Presumably, it has some sort of binding nature within the courts themselves,” he said. “But it seems to be more a sort of an aspirational document — that these are the kinds of things we need to address.”
In a recent statement, an unidentified Supreme Court official said, “Only if the defendant’s human rights are given legal protection during the judicial process can we truly avoid the occurrence of false and unjust cases.”
However, the power lies under the control of the Communist Party, not with the court system itself.
“In the judicial system in China the public security system is by far the most powerful institution, and there are effectively very few checks and balances on how it exerts its power,” Bequelin said.
“For one, [the document]only speaks to the courts, while it’s the police, a much more powerful institution than China’s weak courts, that does the torturing,” he said.
Nonetheless, awareness of the issue and its wrongs means progress towards a new perspective on human rights in the country.
– Samantha Davis