Zhang Hui (left) and Zhang Gaoping (right) stand with their lawyer. Zhang Gaoping, 48, and his nephew Zhang Hui, 37, were wrongly imprisoned for 10 years for the rape and murder of a girl in 2003. (Courtesy of Zhu Mingyong)

BEIJING — The words were beaten out of them.

By the time Zhang Gaoping and his nephew confessed to the rape and murder of a 17-year-old girl, the men say their bodies had been pummeled. Their prison tormenters stubbed out cigarettes on Zhang’s arms, poured water down his nose and kept him awake in a half-crouch with almost no food for seven days and nights.

Their story — told in vivid detail to local media in recent weeks and supported by a rare government admission that the men were tortured while held by authorities — is drawing fresh attention here to the practice of forced confessions. It has also added fuel to a debate between those clamoring for reform of China’s problematic legal system and conservatives in the ruling Communist Party who are more concerned with preserving control over an increasingly fractious society.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this case is coming out now,” said Nicholas Bequelin, senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It’s part of an effort by the pro-legal reforms faction to overcome the resistance of the security apparatus.”

Zhang and his nephew, Zhang Hui, who deny any involvement in the attack on the girl, managed to win their appeal and their freedom last month after 10 years in prison — a rare legal occurrence. Even more unusual is the degree to which the Chinese government has admitted fault.

Justice officials who were in court when the men were released apologized and bowed to them. Later, through a court spokesman, officials acknowledged to reporters that their conviction appears to have been based on confessions that were coerced with violence and threats.

Each year in China, more than a million people are sentenced in criminal cases. To maintain their astonishing 99 percent conviction rate, authorities rely on confessions — often forced, experts say — as the most common piece of evidence. While no government statistics have been released, a 15-year study by a Hong Kong-based law professor in 2011 found that confessions were obtained in 95 percent of criminal cases in China.

Reached by phone in their poor village in Anhui province in southern China, the uncle, now balding at 48, and nephew, 37, declined to talk to foreign media for fear of upsetting legal authorities who are sensitive to criticism abroad. Those authorities are still deciding whether to compensate the men for their decade in prison.

But in interviews with local media since their release, they have described their case, their treatment under interrogation and their struggle to prove their innocence. Speaking by phone on their behalf, Zhang’s lawyer also answered questions about their case.

Truck drivers by trade, they said they offered a ride one night in May 2003 to a girl they knew from their village. They dropped her off about 250 miles away, in the city of Hangzhou, and continued on to Shanghai. After her body was found in a drainage ditch the next day, the two men were arrested.

Their interrogations were carried out by local police, but the men said their torture was overseen by a fellow inmate at a detention house where they were held — a claim confirmed by the court spokesman in a recent interview.

Recalling the experience to local media, Zhang Hui said the fellow prisoner, named Yuan Lianfang, often sent other prisoners to beat them in bathrooms. Yuan did not respond to recent attempts to reach him and has declined to answer questions from local reporters.

The nephew finally broke after five days without sleep or food, he said, telling authorities he pulled the girl off the truck and killed her with a stone. His minders, he said, corrected him, saying, “No, it wasn’t like that, you raped her first and then you choked her to death.”

Zhang Gaoping held out longer. Authorities kept him handcuffed and forced him to squat, his feet far apart, for hours on end, he said. At one point, his captors filled his mouth with cigarettes and forced him to smoke, beating him whenever one cigarette burned faster than others. They held him on the ground, covered his mouth and poured water into his nose, preventing him from breathing, Zhang said.

Ultimately, the fellow prisoner finally got him to talk with a series of beatings and an order forbidding Zhang from sleeping unless he accomplished the impossible task of catching 50 mosquitoes.

At trial, both were found guilty based entirely on their signed confessions along with the testimony of their torturer, who said the nephew had told him he raped the girl. The lack of physical evidence didn’t matter, though authorities now say the DNA found under the girl’s nails matched neither man. Zhang Hui was sentenced to death and Zhang Gaoping to life in prison.

‘He was lucky’

In prison, the uncle said he became obsessed with homicide cases, and one day came across an account of a villager appealing his case on the basis of being tortured by a fellow prisoner with a familiar name: Yuan Lianfang.

Then in 2005, Zhang saw a TV report about a case eerily similar to his — a naked girl found dead near Hangzhou who, authorities said, was killed by a taxi driver named Gou Haifeng.

For years, Zhang sent letters urging officials to re-examine his case. Finally in 2011, after local media began poking into the case, Zhejiang province authorities ran the girl’s DNA through a database and, according to court and media reports, quickly matched it to the taxi driver, who had been executed years earlier.

“He was lucky,” said Zhang’s lawyer Zhu Mingyong.

Government officials have not talked in detail about the case, but in a recent interview, a court spokesman in Zhejiang confirmed the broad outlines of Zhang’s account, including their detention, forced confession and the use of a fellow prisoner in torturing them.

Solving crimes trumps rights

Forced confessions have a long history in China, from the early dynasties in the era before Christ to political purges under modern Communist Party rule. In the Tang Dynasty, for example, laws stipulated that officers couldn’t beat prisoners more than three times.

In the past three years, central authorities have enacted new policies to curb the practice, including legal paths to exclude illegally obtained confessions from evidence and the introduction of videotaped interrogations. But in practice, experts say, almost nothing has changed.

Pressure remains high on police to close criminal investigations, especially murder cases. Lawyers are routinely prevented from meeting with suspects. Under one particularly problematic rule, lawyers who persuade defendants to change their statements face perjury charges, even if the previous statements were obtained through torture.

“In the end, cracking down on crime is seen as more important than protecting human rights,” said Hong Daode, a criminal law expert at China University of Political Science and Law. “That guiding thought makes it easy for innocent people to be wronged.”

Some in legal circles have hoped a recent generational change in China’s leadership would lead to real reform, but others are pessimistic. Optimists have noted how widely Zhang’s case was reported by Chinese media, which would have required the acquiescence of government censors.

Tough adjustment to freedom

For Zhang and his nephew, adjusting to life outside prison has been difficult.

Their village changed dramatically over the past decade. Many neighbors left for China’s bigger cities as migrant workers. Zhang, who didn’t cry when his case was overturned, said he wept upon entering the room of his mother, who died while he was imprisoned.

His two daughters grew up in ridicule and abject poverty. Zhang’s ex-wife, who divorced him while he was in prison, recently returned to the village after hearing that he may receive government compensation and demanded a share for her own suffering.

Freedom has not dissolved his bitterness for their torturers. “I hate them. How can I forgive them?” Zhang said.

On the day he was released, standing before the justice system that wronged him, Zhang said: “Today you are judges and prosecutors, but your descendants won’t necessarily be the same. If there is no change in institutions and laws, your descendants could be wrongfully accused and teeter on the brink of the death penalty like us. Please remember that.”

Zhang Jie contributed to this report.