Amnesty says torture has become endemic in China

BRUTAL, and sometimes fatal, torture has become endemic in Chinese prisons over the past 10 years, according to Amnesty International.

The government's repeated campaigns to crush crime and political opposition have resulted in far more severe abuses than they did a decade ago, the organisation says in a report today.

Beatings, assaults with electric batons, shackling in uncomfortable positions, sometimes for weeks or months, and suspension in the air by the arms or feet are some of the torture methods listed by Amnesty. Prisoners are often confined in tiny, unlit cells, some of which are too small to stand up or lie down in, deprived of sleep, food and medical treatment and exposed to extreme cold or heat. Although Chinese regulations limit solitary confinement to 15 days, Amnesty says it is frequently imposed for longer periods - often for several months and in some cases for years.

Torture is forbidden by law in China, which ratified the United Nations convention against torture four years ago. Since then, however, 'the incidence of torture in China's prisons and detention centres has, if anything, increased', says the organisation. It believes the law enforcement and justice system 'actually foster torture', saying: 'Prisoners have very few rights in law and virtually none in practice, leading to many criminal and political suspects and prisoners being abused to force confessions and as punishment.'

A Chinese government report on the prison system, published last August, contradicts Amnesty in almost every respect. It asserts that 'China pays close attention to implementing the principles of humanitarianism.' Criminals are provided with proper living accommodation and medical treatment, and their rights and dignity are respected: 'Humiliating of prisoners is forbidden.'

The Chinese government acknowledges that police sometimes use torture to extract confessions, but says it is infrequent and that torturers are punished when reported. Amnesty quotes official sources as saying 407 cases of extracting confessions by torture were investigated and prosecuted in 1991, while 24 wardens and guards were imprisoned in 1990 and 1991 for administering corporal punishment to prisoners. But it adds that the real incidence of torture is reported to be far higher.

Prisoners have no rights to defend themselves against torture and no redress to an independent and impartial trial to air their grievances, with the result that most torturers go unpunished, Amnesty says.

Prison inmates have no contact with the outside world and the law does not guarantee them visiting rights, which are regarded as a privilege. Judges charged with supervising prison conditions have little power and rarely report cases of maltreatment, according to former prisoners quoted by the organisation.

Torture is most often reported during preliminary and pre-trial detention, Amnesty says. Anti-crime campaigns increase the pressure on police to extract confessions, which have great weight in China - the organisation points out that few cases are brought to trial without such an admission of guilt, even where other evidence exists.

The Amnesty report cites 56 individual cases, including some involving women and children.