Days after strident criticism of the United States for “brutality” and “hypocrisy” over its treatment of terrorism suspects, China admitted Tuesday that it “has not been rare” for its own police for extort forced confessions from criminal suspects by torture.
The unusual admission came after a teenager executed for rape and murder 18 years ago was finally cleared of the crime on Monday. The statement also was intended to reinforce the Communist Party’s recent promise to strengthen the rule of law.
Huugjilt, then 18, was arrested for raping and murdering a woman a public toilet in Inner Mongolia in 1996. After 48 hours of interrogation, he confessed to the crime and was executed two months later. But doubt was cast on the verdict in 2005 when an alleged serial killer confessed to murdering the woman. Huugjilt’s parents spent nearly a decade campaigning for justice, finally winning their son’s exoneration.
"It has not been rare for higher authorities to exert pressure on local public security departments and judiciary to crack serious murder cases,'' the state-run China Daily said in an editorial. "Nor has it been rare for the police to extort confessions through torture. And suspects have been sentenced without solid evidence except for extorted confessions.''
Huugjilt’s friend, Yan Feng, insisted the pair had heard someone cry out when passing the toilet. Huugjilt went to investigate, only to discover the woman’s body. Despite his friend’s advice not to get involved, Huugjilt reported the crime to the police, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency. His conviction came during a national crackdown on crime, with detectives in the regional capital Hohhot admitting their performance was rated by an “annual quota” of how many criminal cases they solved, Xinhua reported.
In October, China’s leaders promised to promote “the socialist rule of law with Chinese characteristics," reforms that could give judges more independence from interference by local officials but will leave the Party essentially above the law. China Daily said the redressal of “misjudged cases” involving wrongly executed people such as Hugjiilt was “of milestone importance” in the nation’s efforts to build the rule of law.
Maya Wang at Human Rights Watch said it was encouraging that Chinese government had acknowledged the severity of the problem and had taken measures in recent years to exclude confessions obtained by torture, but added these were not enough to significantly curb the practice. “These positive measures are built upon a foundation of a criminal system that gives police wide powers and opportunities to abuse suspects,” she said.
“For example, the police runs the detention centers in which suspects are kept, and thus they have unlimited and unsupervised access to them; suspects have no right to silence; lawyers cannot be present during police interrogations — all these make abuses likely,” she said, adding lack of accountability was another problem. “If police officers do not face consequences for torturing suspects, then they will continue to consider torture as an option in interrogations.”
In an editorial released after last week’s report into interrogation by the CIA, Xinhua accused the United States of “sheer hypocrisy” in casting itself as a defender of human rights. The news agency asked whether the report would accelerate the United States’ fall “from the altar of morality and justice.”
Some bloggers and other Netizens here appeared to share their government’s outrage. But most reacted with irony to that report last week, suggesting U.S. interrogators might have learned a trick or two from China. One posted an imaginary conversation between the CIA and a suspect: “CIA: If you don’t confess, I’ll send you to China. Criminal: I confess!”
The exoneration of Huugjilt was also widely discussed on social media, with 115,000 posts and 330 million views on Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter.
"Those who work in the justice system and created wrong cases are more evil than terrorists,” posted one user. “They used inhumane ways to torture the innocent; they are just as cruel and cold-blooded as the terrorists. But what's more, they do such terrible things in the name of justice, and even get promotion and get rich on the dead bodies of the wronged."
“I see that China Central Television is talking about torture in the United States every day. Waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and that's torture. These are the most lightweight in China!” posted another.
"I think we should compile a document revealing the political and legal affairs departments' abuse of law, just like the U.S. exposing CIA's use of torture,” suggested another user.
Xinhua posted photographs of Huugjilt’s parents burning a copy of the court document by their son’s grave on Monday “to comfort his spirit.”
China’s Supreme Court has also ordered a court in Shandong province to review the case of Nie Shubin, who was executed for murder at the age of 21 in 1995. Another man confessed to that crime in 2005.
Xu Yangjingjing, Gu Jinglu and Xu Jing contributed to this report.