WUTIAN, China — It did not matter to the police that the man they seized in August 2013 was nearly 20 years older than the one wanted on fraud charges. Nor were the officers bothered by the fact that his cellphone number and a character in his name differed from those of the suspect, or by his repeated professions of innocence.
A week later, after interrogations that involved hanging him by his wrists and beating him into unconsciousness, they got what they wanted from the man, Chen Jianzhong, an illiterate wholesale vegetable dealer from a neighboring province: his fingerprint on a multipage confession they had written for him.
“I was so delirious I barely remember anything,” said Mr. Chen, 51, who spent more than 17 months in jail before he was exonerated and walked out a free man.
|Chen Jianzhong, 51, spent more than 17 months in jail before he
was exonerated. He wants an apology and an investigation into
the men who he says tortured him. (Photo: Sim Chi Yin for
The New York Times)
With one of the highest conviction rates in the world, prosecutors and the police in China rarely lose a case. Here in Wutian, the relatively prosperous farming community in coastal Fujian Province where Mr. Chen returned home in February to a hero’s welcome, people believe they know why: Many convictions in China depend on confessions that lawyers, legal experts and defendants say are obtained through coercion.Photo
The prevalence of forced confessions has long been an embarrassment to Beijing, which ratified an international treaty against torture in 1988. After a string of revelations about innocent people who were imprisoned and sentenced to death, China’s leaders have repeatedly vowed improvements to the judicial system. President Xi Jinping has made legal reform a component of his “Chinese Dream,” an effort to bolster popular support for the Communist Party by, among other things, improving government efficiency.
In recent years, the nation’s legislature and its highest court have issued several rulings that prohibit courts from using evidence obtained through abuse. Pretrial detention centers have been required to install video cameras to deter brutality.
But Chinese lawyers and human rights advocates say these measures have had limited impact on a police system that for decades has made obtaining a confession the centerpiece of its efforts.
“Unless they kill or seriously injure a defendant during interrogation, there are almost no consequences for police,” said Maya Wang, China researcher at Human Rights Watch, which issued a report on Wednesday that documents scores of cases in which suspects were convicted despite claims of having endured brutal interrogation. “If anything, the police have gotten better at inflicting pain without causing serious injuries.”
|From left, Wu Beixiong, Wu Fuzhao, Guo Zhiwen and Wu
Wenqi served time for crimes they said they did not commit.
Using newly available court records, Human Rights Watch found that judges routinely ignore signs of torture during court proceedings, despite an “exclusionary rule” adopted in 2012 that requires courts to toss out evidence obtained through abusive questioning.
The report examined 432 verdicts since 2014 in which suspects claimed to have been mistreated. Of those, judges invalidated evidence in just 23 cases but still declined to acquit the defendants.
“The Chinese legal system isn’t good at dealing with mistakes,” Ms. Wang said.
Despite the government’s vows, the persistence of coercive interrogations and false confessions illustrates one of the most fundamental challenges that the Communist Party faces in turning laws into practice. The nation’s powerful domestic security apparatus enjoys wide latitude in carrying out its mission of promoting social stability.
And when it comes to crime, experts say, the public expects results, putting pressure on law enforcement to find and punish a culprit. In 2013, Chinese courts had an acquittal rate of just 0.007 percent, according to government figures.
Guo Zhiyuan, a professor of criminal justice at China University of Political Science and Law, said the exclusionary rule had led to a notable decrease in violent interrogations. But she said the Chinese government was not prepared to adopt broad legal protections for defendants, including the right to remain silent and allowing lawyers to be present during interrogations.
Defense lawyers say some of the worst abuses occur in cases involving organized crime, dissidents accused of political offenses, and detainees in Tibet and Xinjiang, where security personnel are dealing with ethnic unrest. This year, the International Campaign for Tibet listed 14 people who it said had died in police custody since 2009.
In their trial last year in Guangdong Province, all 32 suspects accused of participating in an illegal gambling ring told the court that the police had tortured them into signing fabricated confessions. The judges who heard the allegations were not moved.
During the trial, Vincent Wu, an American businessman who was convicted of leading the syndicate, described how the police had hung him from the ceiling, beaten him with a stick, starved him and shocked him with an electric baton. “By the time he signed the confession he was pretty much unconscious,” his daughter, Anna Wu, said in an interview.
Ms. Wu, who says her father was falsely accused by a politically connected business rival, is appealing his conviction.
The presence of video cameras in pretrial detention centers has only made the police more creative, many suspects say. Wu Wenqi, 43, who worked as a security guard at a fruit market owned by Mr. Wu, said interrogators would drive the suspects to a local police station for questioning. Over the course of three days, he said, he was hogtied, suspended from the ceiling and beaten until he acquiesced to the charges of running an illegal casino.
“I’ve never set foot in a casino my entire life,” said Mr. Wu, who has returned to his former life as a farmer after serving a sentence of nearly two and a half years.
The Ministry of Public Security, which oversees the nation’s police and pretrial detention centers, did not respond to interview requests.
Legal experts say the crux of the problem lies with China’s party-run judiciary, a system in which the police, prosecutors and judges work together to ensure convictions. Even when faced with irrefutable evidence that a defendant is innocent, Chinese judges will work out a solution with prosecutors to have the charges dropped so as to avoid an acquittal — a ruling that can embarrass the police and open the door to compensation claims by a defendant.
Many local police departments lack the forensic and investigative expertise to collect evidence, experts say, but the Chinese approach to solving crime has long favored confessions.
“To nail a case with a confession is the simplest and most convenient way,” said He Jiahong, the director of the Law of Evidence Research Institute at Renmin University in Beijing. “There is a saying among some cops that torture is like fermented tofu; it smells foul but tastes good. Use it and the case is closed.”
This is apparently what the police thought when they led Mr. Chen, the vegetable wholesaler, off a plane in Beijing. When the three officers announced he was wanted for producing counterfeit cigarettes in Raoping, a county in Guangdong Province, Mr. Chen laughed.
“You clearly have the wrong guy,” he told them, explaining that his business took him from Vietnam to China’s northern border with Russia, but that he had stepped foot in Raoping only once — in the 1990s.
After being escorted 1,300 miles south, Mr. Chen was questioned overnight in the basement of the Raoping police station. He said he had been tied up in the “hanging airplane” position — his arms stretched out and tethered to the wall — with his feet suspended several inches off the ground. To increase the pain, his interrogators made him wear a vest filled with sand.
“I felt like my chest and head were exploding,” he recalled.
The pain — and a verbal promise to set him free — convinced Mr. Chen that he should press an inked finger to a previously written confession. He spent the next seven months at a fetid detention center where his untreated wrists became infected.
Seven months later, in a remarkable stroke of luck, he was led into a courtroom where his two alleged accomplices told the judge they had the wrong man. After this apparent vindication, Mr. Chen was still inexplicably held for almost another year, and even now he can barely hold a cup with his injured hands.
Since his release, Mr. Chen has been seeking an apology from the police and an investigation into the men who tortured him. He knows he stands little chance of satisfaction. “I’m just a vegetable seller,” he said. “What can I do?”
Reached by phone, the man who now runs the fraud division said he knew little about the case, saying his predecessor had changed jobs. The Raoping prosecutor’s office was less obliging. A man who answered the phone brushed off a reporter.
“If you want to ask questions,” he taunted, “then come to our door.”
Patrick Zuo and Mia Li contributed research.