China doesn't torture? Family of Zhang Liumao says don't believe it.

On Nov. 4 at 2 a.m. the family of a local activist got a call from Guangzhou Detention Facility No. 3 with news of his death. Lawyers examining Zhang's body say he was tortured.

Alexander F. Yuan/AP/File
In this 2012 photo, a Chinese paramilitary policeman stands guard at the Number Two Detention Center in Beijing. China's deep-rooted practice of using torture to extract confessions from suspects has seen little improvement despite measures introduced since 2010 to reform the criminal justice system, Amnesty International said Thursday.

A Chinese diplomat appearing Wednesday before the United Nations Committee Against Torture in Geneva declared flatly that the problem of death in custody due to lack of medical care “is not allowed to happen” in his country.

Tell that to Zhang Weichu.

On Monday Ms. Zhang’s lawyer inspected the corpse of her brother, Zhang Liumao, who had disappeared into police detention some three months earlier. He reported finding a bruised and bloody body with apparent signs of torture.

“My brother was tortured and the hospital couldn’t save him,” says Ms. Zhang. “Don’t believe that diplomat.”

At the hearings in Geneva, China’s ambassador Wu Hailong said his government had made “enormous efforts” to halt the torture of detainees.

But he and other members of his delegation “gave no concrete answers” to probing questions from committee members about allegations of widespread police abuses in China, complains Patrick Poon, a researcher with Amnesty International who attended the hearings.

A recent Amnesty International report found that detainees in Chinese police stations are often beaten, held in steel “tiger chairs” restraining them in painful postures for hours on end, and denied sleep, in defiance of the law.

Among the official measures to prevent such behavior that Mr. Wu mentioned was a new criminal procedural law requiring video and audio recordings of some interrogations. Currently lawyers are not allowed to attend interrogations under Chinese law.

Laws don't really matter

Police made a video of Zhang under questioning, his sister says, “but they say they will only show us an edited version and there is no point in that.”

“There may be laws, but implementation is a major problem,” says Mr. Poon. “In practice, the close relations between the police, the prosecutors, and the courts … mean that all the arrangements the authorities claim are available to protect detainees and lawyers are really not implemented.”

In the absence of independent reporting, it is hard to judge the scale of torture in Chinese police stations, says Poon. But the new regulations and laws implemented to curb the practice have had an “insignificant” impact, he argues, not least because when policemen are prosecuted they are let off lightly.

“There are plenty of cases prosecuting torture offenders,” Li Wensheng, deputy head of legal affairs in China’s police force, told the UN committee in Geneva. The body periodically reviews the record of nations that have ratified the convention against torture. But he evaded questions about the exact number of such cases. He mentioned one instance of five policemen sentenced to up to two years in prison for torturing a detainee, a punishment one committee member suggested was “rather mild.”

Should an investigation bear out Zhang Weichu’s suspicions that her brother was tortured she plans to sue the police. But she says there is “only a 10 percent chance” of an open and honest investigation.

Zhang Liumao, her brother, was a small-time human rights activist in the southern city of Guangzhou, according to rights defenders who knew him. He never took a prominent role, but would help pro-democracy activists if they got into trouble, partly by drawing attention to their cases.

He was detained last August on charges of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble,” a catch-all charge that authorities often bring against people who challenge the ruling Communist party.

A 2 a.m. phone call

The next thing the family heard, in a phone call at two in the morning on Nov. 4 from a police officer at Guangzhou’s Detention Facility No.3, was that Zhang had died 90 minutes earlier. The caller gave no cause of death.

It turned out later, says Ms. Zhang, that her brother had been taken to the hospital on Oct. 11. It appears that during the last three weeks of his life he was shuttled between the Guangzhou Armed Police hospital and the police detention facility.

Two days after his death the official news agency website, Xinhuanet, published an article claiming that Zhang had been the leader of a terrorist bomb-making gang who had intended to overthrow the Chinese government. He had died of an uncontrollable nosebleed and internal bleeding caused by cancer, the article added.

For two weeks the police refused to let relatives see Zhang’s body. The lawyer whom the family first hired says he was pressured by State Security agents who prevailed on his law firm to stop him taking the case.

When a second lawyer, Qin Chenshou, was allowed to inspect Zhang’s body, along with relatives, he found “a deep scar left by a shackle on the right ankle … bruises all over the abdomen … obvious bloodstains on the chest” along with injuries to the head, arms and legs, according to his report, which The Christian Science Monitor has seen.

“I think Zhang may have been tortured but I cannot say for sure until there is an official medical report,” says Mr. Qin. “But the family is suspicious and they want the autopsy done by an independent third party, not the police.” 

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