The exoneration of a man wrongfully executed 18 years ago has again thrown a spotlight on China’s widespread use of torture to extract confessions from criminal suspects.
In an unusually candid editorial Tuesday, a state government newspaper acknowledged that local police regularly torture suspects, resulting in numerous cases where innocent people are convicted and even executed for crimes they did not commit.
“It has not been rare for higher authorities to exert pressure on local public security departments and judiciary to crack serious murder cases,” said the editorial in the English-language China Daily. “Nor has it been rare for the police to extort confessions through torture. … Suspects have been sentenced without solid evidence except for extorted confessions.”
In recent years, state media and government officials have acknowledged police use of torture but have tended to treat it as a regrettable remnant of the past. Tuesday’s China Daily editorial suggests that some parts of the government feel the need to be more forthright about ongoing police practices, even as China skewers the United States for last week’s report on CIA use of torture.
The case in question involves a man, Huugjilt, who at age 18 was arrested for raping and murdering a woman at a textile factory in Hohhot, the capital of China’s Inner Mongolia autonomous region. According to state media, police took just 48 hours to obtain a confession from Huugjilt. He was executed in June 1996, just 61 days after he was convicted.
Nine years later, another man confessed to the murder. That prompted the Inner Mongolia High People’s Court to retry the case last month. On Monday, the court overturned Huugjilt’s conviction, saying there was insufficient evidence in the initial verdict.
According to state media, a court official arrived Monday morning at Huugjilt’s home and provided his mother, Shang Aiyun, with an apology and the equivalent of $4,500 in compensation. Huugjilt’s mother, who spent nearly a decade trying to clear her son’s name, may receive further compensation, a court official told China Daily.
The exoneration of Huugjilt (also spelled Hugjiltu) quickly became one of the most discussed topics on Sina Weibo, China’s main social media platform, with lawyers and others discussing the implications.
“Every time I see Hugjiltu’s picture, and think that this kid was randomly killed because of some officials’ violation of the law due to their greed, my heart feels horrible,” wrote Tong Zhiwei, a law professor at East China University in Shanghai. “Now might be a good time to seriously review and rectify all possible wronged cases, reflect on the evilness of extorting confession through torture and to ban it within the system.”
China’s one-party government, which executes an estimated 3,000 people per year, has a long history of wrongful convictions, partly because of police interrogation techniques.
In 2006, police in Fujian province accused a man named Nian Bin of poisoning his neighbors with rat poison, leading to the deaths of two children. The food stall owner was sentenced to death, but in August, after years of appeals, a court cleared him of the charge. He claimed he was tortured into confessing to the crime.
On Friday, China’s Supreme People Court ordered a lower court to review the conviction of Nie Shuban, a 21-year-old man executed in 1995 for raping and murdering a woman in Hebei province, south of Beijing. According to state media, Nie’s mother has spent the last nine years seeking a court review, after a serial killer confessed to the crime.
Maya Wang, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the recent court actions “are all positive signs that the government is increasingly willing to address these worst cases of wrongful convictions.”
She noted, however, that China’s criminal justice system doesn’t place checks on the ability of police to engage in torture. Police run the detention centers where suspects are kept, suspects have no right to silence, and lawyers cannot be present during police interrogations, she said in an email exchange with McClatchy.
Wang said that, in Huugjilt’s case, it’s important to see whether the local government fully investigates those responsible, as it has pledged to do.
“Accountability for torture perpetrators (in China) is very rare, even in prominent cases,” she said. “If police officers do not face consequences for torturing suspects, then they will continue to consider torture as an option in interrogations.”
Since last week’s U.S. Senate report on CIA use of torture, Chinese state media have repeatedly accused the United States of hypocrisy on the issue. “The recently published prisoner abuse report has thoroughly discredited this ‘human rights champion’ idea,” wrote the China News Service in an editorial.
Human rights groups, however, say Chinese authorities not only engage in torture but allow torture techniques to be exported abroad. A September report by Amnesty International reported that 130 Chinese companies now sell “tools of torture,” a four-fold increase from a decade ago. Some of these tools include metal spiked batons, electric shock stun batons and weighted leg cuffs.
“This trade – which causes immense suffering – is flourishing because the Chinese authorities have done nothing to stop companies supplying these sickening devices for export,” said Patrick Wilcken, an Amnesty researcher who helped prepare the report.