China’s detention system under pressure after inmate deaths

With the deaths of at least six detainees so far this year, China’s detention system is under mounting pressure to reform.

The judicial authorities at the recent meeting of the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s legislature, which concluded on 13 March, pledged more frequent inspections of detention facilities to prevent inmates from being tortured by police officers or bullied by fellow inmates.

“In China, torture and other ill-treatment remain commonplace because detainees have restricted access to lawyers and their family, and the prosecution commonly relies on confessions as a form of evidence,” said Roseann Rife, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Programme.

“Amnesty International welcomes the pledges for increased supervision of detention facilities in China. However, the authorities should revise the Criminal Procedure Law to explicitly prohibit the use of confessions obtained through torture or ill-treatment as evidence in courts.”

China’s detention system found itself under the spotlight after a young detainee in the country’s south-west Yunnan province died of severe brain injuries on 12 February.

Police at the detention centre in Jinning county, initially said that Li Qiaoming was accidentally injured when he ran blindfolded into a wall while playing hide-and-seek with other inmates.

The case was covered intensively by the Chinese media and, in a widely praised move, the authorities responded to calls for an investigation. The new findings showed that Li had been beaten to death by prison bullies.

Following repeated reports of detainees being bullied and tortured, judicial or independent institutions are being urged to take over the running of detention facilities from the police.

“The responsibility to eliminate bullying inside jails lies with the department managing the facilities. Prosecutorial supervision is important but it should not be solely responsible for the safety of the inmates,” said Tong Jianming, Supreme People’s Procuratorate spokesperson.

“Detention houses should not be managed by public security [police] departments, because they make arrests, and sometimes torture the accused to force them to confess,” said Duan Zhengkun, a former vice minister of justice.

Three senior officials in charge of the prisons in Jinning were removed from their posts and two guards charged for dereliction of duty in the wake of Li Qiaoming’s death. An official in Li’s cellblock was also dismissed and according to the provincial procuratorate, the three inmates who beat Li are likely to face charges of assault causing death.

Most recently, Hu Fenqiang, a suspect in Xiangtan, Hunan province, was certified dead on 12 March after losing consciousness at a detention centre. Police officers involved in Hu’s interrogation have been suspended from duty while under investigation.

Nineteen-year-old student Xu Gengrong died on the seventh day of his detention in Danfeng county, Shaanxi province on 8 March. Autopsy results showed that Xu, who was held on suspicion of murdering a female student, was starved and suffered several injuries.

Xu’s case led to uproar in Danfeng when his friends and relatives accused the police of torture after seeing his body. They said there were bruises on his arms, hands and legs. There was also blood in his nostrils.

Xu’s classmate Wu Ming, who was detained for two days, said that the police considered them suspects from the very start. “I was kept awake, beaten ’til my nose bled and my arms grew numb from carrying a pile of bricks on my back,” he told local media.

In Changsha, Hunan province, teenagers Xiao Haixing and Qiu Xiaolong, inmates at the same juvenile reformatory, both died in a hospital after emergency treatment on 3 and 6 March, respectively. The authorities have attributed their deaths to medical reasons but their families have refused to accept the official explanations saying the authorities are trying to cover up the real reasons behind their deaths. 

Luo Jingbo was beaten to death in a detention centre on the southern island of Hainan on 4 March. According to media reports the 58-year-old farm worker was assaulted by inmates after he refused to obey their order to take a bath. According to officials from the detention house, Luo bashed his head against a wall and fell to the ground.

Yang Caicong, a policeman on duty, heard the incident through a monitoring device, but did not take immediate measures to stop the attack. He was detained on 13 March for dereliction of duty.

“Increasing reports of deaths in custody reflect a serious problem with China’s detention system that must be addressed with a thorough overhaul. The Chinese authorities must also conduct independent investigations into all deaths in custody and bring those responsible to justice,” said Roseann Rife.