U.N. special investigator catalogues widespread torture in China

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    By ALEXA OLESEN

    Associated Press Writer

    BEIJING (AP) – He Depu, a Chinese democracy activist, was forced to lie still on a bed in a cold room for 85 days. Others told of being beaten with electric batons or sticks, and of sleepless interrogations that went on for weeks.

    The U.N.’s first torture investigator to visit China said Friday that torture, while on the decline, is still widespread. During the landmark two-week visit, Manfred Nowak met 30 detainees held in Beijing, Tibet and the Muslim-majority region of Xinjiang.

    Nowak also met with victims’ families and held talks with top Chinese prosecutors and justice officials.

    The Beijing-based activist, He, told Nowak that not being allowed to move for 85 days was like “killing a person with a soft knife.”

    “I think that described very, very well the situation,” Nowak told The Associated Press. “You get very, very weak because of not being able to move, and being in this particular position, of course, your whole body starts hurting. He endured it, but he felt, and I would agree, that this was torture.”

    The activist was among the few who gave Nowak permission to share his story. Others, fearing reprisals, made him promise to keep theirs confidential.

    Although China outlawed torture in 1996, “I consider it on the decline, but still widespread,” Nowak told the AP.

    A United Nations statement said China’s ban includes only the sort of torture, called “kuxing” in Chinese, that meets a narrow definition of violent punishment that leaves lasting scars or disability. It said physical or psychological torture that leaves little or no physical injury is rarely punished.

    Nowak will include his findings in a report to be submitted at next year’s meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Commission.

    “Those who told me the most serious stories very often at the end said: ‘Please keep this totally confidential,'” said Nowak. “In my report you will find the much nicer cases.”

    The United Nations has received “a significant number of serious allegations” that Chinese authorities have submerged prisoners in sewage, burned them with cigarettes, hooded or blindfolded them, exposed them to extreme heat or cold, used handcuffs or ankle fetters for extended periods of time and used numerous other torture methods, according to the U.N. statement on Nowak’s findings.

    In some cases, it said, the methods are given names, such as the “tiger bench” in which detainees are forced to sit motionless on a stool a few inches off the ground or “exhausting an eagle”, where they must stand on a tall stool and be subjected to beatings until exhaustion. “Reversing an airplane” involves bending over while holding legs straight and close together, with arms lifted high, it said.

    Based on the information he gathered, Nowak was able to confirm “many of these methods of torture have been used in China,” the statement said without specifically saying which methods were verified.

    Nowak, a Vienna law professor, said he was prevented from bringing photographic and electronic equipment into prisons and that Chinese security agents attempted to obstruct or restrict his fact-finding at times. They listened in on interviews with victims’ relatives or prevented family members from talking to him, he said.

    Nowak’s visit, which began Nov. 21, capped a decade-long U.N. effort to send an investigator to look into claims of torture and mistreatment. China had repeatedly agreed to allow the visits and then postponed them.

    Beijing says Nowak’s visit shows its commitment to banning torture.

    “Through this visit we can demonstrate our sincerity,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said Thursday, before Nowak’s briefing. “It is conducive to promoting understanding,” Qin said.

    Nowak said the most common forms of torture he found in China were “beating with fists, with sticks, and also, unfortunately, electric batons.”

    “Recently I talked with somebody who was forced to kneel on the ground” with a board across his legs, Nowak said. Two men stood on the board, putting continuous pressure on his legs.

    In Tibet, he was told sleep deprivation was frequently used, in one case for 17 days. Authorities there also force people to stay in one position for a long period of time.

    “That can be very difficult if it is day and night,” he said.

    Torture in China is used to extract confessions, as punishment and as a form of re-education, he said.

    In Tibet, the victims were usually “monks and nuns who still uphold their allegiance and support of the Dalai Lama and who are seen as endangering national security because they are often seen as separatists.”

    Other groups who are tortured for their “deviant behavior” include members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, members of the Uighur ethnic minority in Xinjiang and Christians who are members of illegal underground churches, he said.

    Nowak praised China for its “many positive developments” and for making “major improvements” to its legal system in a bid to get rid of torture, including adding a human rights provision into the constitution last year.

    In Tibet in particular, the U.N. received much more serious allegations in the early 1990s and the mid-1990s than it does now, he said.

    “China is moving and it’s moving very rapidly toward a society built on the rule of law,” he said. “But to change the deep-rooted convictions and practices of police officers and also prison guards, that takes very long _ that needs a lot of training and stronger enforcement of the prohibition of torture, and I think that’s where I see the major shortcomings.”

    Associated Press writer Bradley S. Klapper contributed to this report from Geneva.

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