This article was first published in ChinaChange web site on January 25
Lawyer Li Heping (李和平) is one of China’s earliest human rights lawyers and no stranger to torture. In an interview with the artist Ai Weiwei in 2010, he recounted how he was abducted one day in 2007 by Chinese domestic security police, beaten savagely, and thrown onto a hill outside Beijing in the middle of the night. In recent years he ran an anti-torture education program in Beijing, which was likely the reason for his arrest, along with scores of other lawyers, in July 2015, in what is now known as the “709 Incident.” Last week, lawyer Chen Jiangang (陈建刚) published his interviews with lawyer Xie Yang (谢阳) detailed horrific torture the latter was subjected to during a period of “residential surveillance at a designated place” and at the detention center, yesterday the Hong Kong-based Chinese Human Rights Concern Group said that it learned from sources that Li Heping and Wang Quanzhang (王全璋) were tortured by being shocked with electricity. Both have been in custody for over 500 days without access to family or their lawyers. We asked a colleague of lawyer Li Heping to tell us more about the anti-torture work Li engaged in, which has now likely brought torture upon Li himself. The author of the article wishes to remain anonymous. — The Editors
China, among all countries, has one of the longest histories of the use of torture. In contemporary China, torture is most often understood as merely a part of the interrogation process in criminal cases. This is directly related to the fact that the concept of “torture” as defined in the international criminal context has no clear domestic legal definition in China. In fact, the United Nations’ Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which China ratified in 1986, defines torture broadly: it includes the application of physical or psychological torture by public officials for the purpose of gaining information or confessions, and it also includes torture for the purpose of threatening, menacing, or discriminating against victims. All these forms of torture can have severely negative impacts on the body and minds of victims. So in China, many people — including lawyers who are steeped in the law — have a limited understanding of torture.
In recent years it has become known to the public that torture has been employed in many criminal cases to procure confessions. Public reports of exonerations — including in the Hugjiltu case in Inner Mongolia, the Nie Shubin case in Hebei, the Yang Ming case in Guizhou — show that in every single case of this kind, torture was used. Clearly, the use of torture is one of the key reasons for these false convictions and grave injustices. If torture is reduced, then the number of unjust and false convictions is also likely to decrease commensurately.
As a way of helping more lawyers better understand torture and equip them with more information about torture, Li Heping and a number of criminal defense lawyers took a leading role in promoting the idea of “Prohibition of Torture” (禁止酷刑). From around 2009, Li and a few other Beijing-based lawyers, began to work with the UK-based NGO The Rights Practice, advocating and promoting inside China the idea of prohibiting torture. This work included organizing small-scale legal salons, large-scale law symposiums, drafting anti-torture handbooks, raising the profile of specific cases of torture, and more.
We began at a fundamental level, discussing the definition of torture in small group setting, then the key articles of The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. We compared the clauses in the convention to China’s own laws, and in doing so, discovered the problems with Chinese law, and proposed means and strategies for dealing with them.
Through a few years of work, many lawyers who attended these discussions gained a much deeper understanding on the prohibition of torture. The lawyers were able to provide numerous ideas for judicial reforms that would prohibit torture, including changes to the detention center system, the right for lawyers to be present at interrogations of their client, exclusion of illegally-obtained evidence, audio-visual recording of suspect interrogations, and many other institutional safeguards and reforms. Some of these suggestions for reform have already been implemented, while others — like the right for lawyers to be present at interrogation, or the exclusion of illegally-obtained evidence — still require a lot of work at the procedural and practical levels.
Lawyers need to pay constant attention to these issues and continue to promote them. What is gratifying, however, is that many individual cases of convictions obtained via torture in custody ultimately resulted in a commutations or amended, non-guilty judgements, after lawyers began advocating around them.
Of course, the project has not been entirely smooth going. Li Heping and other main participants were subject to long-term pressure from the authorities, and the police regularly called them in for “drinking tea,” threatening and intimidating them. Sometimes the police would warn the lawyers off attending a particular event, or prohibit them from meeting a visiting foreign dignitary, among other demands.
In early 2011, a number of lawyers were among scores of activists who had been forcibly disappeared across the country, and when they were released a few months later, they exposed how they were tortured during their disappearance.
In July 2015, a nationwide campaign targeted human rights lawyers, and Li Heping was among those taken into custody. To this day he still has not been tried. According to publicly available information, a number of lawyers, after being arrested, were put under residential surveillance at a designated location, during which time they were subjected to extremely severe torture. The Hunan lawyer Xie Yang, for instance, was beaten by police and put through exhausting interrogations and sleep deprivation. Li Heping’s younger brother, Li Chunfu, was detained for 530 days, during which time he suffered severe psychological damage. These cases make clear that torture remains an extremely serious problem. Everyone needs to pay attention to the issue, including, of course, the international community.“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
We believe that while advocacy for the prohibition of torture will remain full of risks, more and more lawyers will stand up and say “no” to torture. Through the efforts of lawyers, torture in China will occur less and less, and those who have carried out the torture will receive the punishment they’re due.