An inmate reads a book in his cell in a prison in Yuzhou, Henan Province. Photo: CFP
A trial reform program aimed at preventing the torture of prisoners and suspects is underway in several cities across the country, which involves the tighter supervision of enforcement authorities and raising awareness about people's right to complain when they are mistreated during interrogation.
The moves amid cases involving alleged violent interrogations that led to deaths in custody, despite attempts to curb the problem by the government, which ratified the United Nations Conventions Against Torture in 1988.
Police officers are being trained to use less aggressive and intimidating approaches when questioning suspects while detainees are encouraged to speak out if they believe they have been mistreated, according to a trial program jointly initiated by the Ministry of Public Security, the Supreme People's Procuratorate, and scholars at Renmin University of China.
In Wuhu of Anhui Province, where the program was first trialed, detention houses have had a special mailbox installed in the bathrooms since last year. Detainees can file a complaint letter against officers if they have been violently mistreated.
"This helps protect the privacy of detainees since only the local procurators have access to the letters," said Chen Weidong, director of Research Center for Procedural System and Judicial Reform at Renmin University of China.
"Complainants can be anonymous. A special investigation board consisting of eight local procurators, lawyers and resident inspectors are hired by the government to probe into accusations and give advice," he added.
Among the 73 complaint letters filed from March, 2011 to May this year by detainees in Wuhu, 33 related to the management of the detention house and the complainants have all received feedback or been informed of investigation results, according to files by the People's Procuratorate of Wuhu, which was obtained by the Global Times.
A similar complaint system will also be implemented in Ningbo in Zhejiang Province and the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region this year, Chen told the Global Times.
China's detention houses remain mysterious places to the public, particularly when reports of suspicious deaths during or after interrogations provoked public speculation about the treatment of detained suspects.
In some cases, local officials have been revealed to have made up stories to explain the deaths of detainees to avoid responsibility, which has eroded the credibility of the government and efforts at transparency in China's criminal and judicial procedures.
A villager in Wuyi county of Zhejiang died hanging himself at a local police station on August 11, after being questioned by officers in relation to a demolition dispute, according to Xinhua. Procurators are probing the case, while the police officers involved were dismissed and may face discipline depending on the results of the investigation.
The mysterious death of Li Qiaoming, a 24-year-old Yunan resident who died after being detained for 11 days in 2009, triggered massive controversy when local officials claimed he died of head injuries while playing "hide-and-seek" with other detainees. Procurators later found Li had been beaten and abused by police officers and died of brain injuries, and two officers were charged and sentenced to imprisonment following a court verdict.
Several other cases which shocked the public, including stories of detainees who died while drinking hot water, during sleep and taking baths, have also been proven to be related to a certain degree of torture and violent interrogations, reports say.
Recording the process
"Sometimes it involved misconduct by our officers. Some might have behaved improperly in interrogations when they lost their temper. But some deaths could also have occurred due to other reasons, such as the detainees' health conditions," said Zhang Jinxiang, an officer with the public security bureau of Suzhou, Jiangsu Province.
Suzhou police have installed surveillance cameras at detention centers and prisons to monitor the whole interrogation process to prevent violence and torture as well as to protect their own officers, Zhang said.
In some detention houses officers used to record the interrogation process with a camera by themselves, but that method allowed them to turn the camera off when they wanted to use violence to get quick answers or confessions. Currently, real-time monitoring of interrogation has been applied in many cities such as Suzhou and some places in Hubei Province.
"The camera will be on when officers swipe their cards to access the interrogation room, and officers can't control the recording device," said Zhang, adding that there were cases where detainees died suddenly during or after interrogations in Suzhou.
Another program aimed at preventing torture has been implemented by the detention center in Liaoyuan, Jilin since 2008. Inspectors were invited to investigate detention houses and check on the health and living conditions of detainees.
As the Ministry of Public Security has made calls for the nationwide reform of detention houses to have more awareness of people's rights, the bureau has introduced measures such as special rooms for married prisoners to spend time with their spouses, and allowing prisoners to chat with their family though instant messaging services, Zhang said.
A network connecting the county, city and provincial-level procurators in Hubei has ensured the whole interrogation process is available for online supervision, according to the Hubei Provincial Procuratorate.
Interrogations can be stopped if there is attempted violence toward suspects, and officers will be warned, according to the center.
Police officers from 20 cities and provinces nationwide received training to improve their interrogation skills in 2012. The training included changes to the way they speak to suspects and that they should be less intimidating.
Huang Qi, a rights activist who served eight years in prison in Sichuan Province, told the Global Times that the complaint letter boxes have already been put into use in the past, but only a few have worked.
"I filed anonymous complaints relating to cases in which officers took food from detainees and I stood up for my fellow detainees who were mistreated, but in return, I was beaten up by officers. Some administrators told me the complaint box is nothing but a shell," Huang said.
Zhang Kai, a Beijing-based lawyer who has become known for representing disadvantaged groups, said he welcomed the reform, although torture still exists given the criminal procedures, which are based largely on the written confessions of suspects.
"Police officers are not always heavily punished in alleged torture cases even if detainees die of their abuse," said Zhang.
Theses people are often charged with extorting confessions using torture, and only serve a few years in prison or are simply suspended, he said, while they should have been sentenced for intentional murder or assault.
No official statistics relating to the number of incidents of torture or forced confessions have been released in China since the late 1990s.
Over the past two decades, an average of 400 cases nationwide were filed each year, where police officers were found to have used force in interrogations, according to a report published by the Chinese Society of Juvenile Delinquency Research.