UN Panel Slams the Use of ‘Black Jails’ and Electroshock Therapy for Gays in China

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Originally published by Vice News on December 12, 2015

China has pushed back against a United Nations report released this week that criticized the continued use by the country’s justice system of secret detention facilities known as “black jails” where prisoners have allegedly been raped and killed. The report also condemned the Chinese government’s apparent acceptance of clinics that offer “gay conversion therapy,” where even electroshock therapy has been administered in an attempt to change the sexual preferences of homosexuals.

The UN’s Committee Against Torture is tasked with monitoring the implementation of UN treaties such as the 1984 Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment, which China joined in 1988. In presenting its report on Wednesday, the panel said it remained “seriously concerned at consistent reports from various sources about a continuing practice of illegal detention in unrecognized and unofficial detention places,” noting that it had received no details from China after inquiring about such facilities.

“Despite the Committee’s questions, the State party has not furnished any information on the number of investigations for illegally operating secret detention facilities nor on the investigations into the alleged rape of Li Ruirui and the reported deaths of Wang Delan and Li Shulian in black jails,” it said.

The committee of 10 independent experts added that it was equally worried about an alleged lack of accountability in the use of administrative detention seen at “legal education centers” and implemented through measures “for the custody and education” of people suspected of prostitution as well as those that stipulate “compulsory isolation” for alleged drug users — methods of confinement that allow authorities to provide little or no information about the suspects or the conditions in which they are held.

Disturbingly, the committee also noted reports that both private and state-run clinics are providing so-called gay conversion therapy to alter the sexual orientation of Chinese homosexuals. It said that the therapy, for which there is no scientific basis, may include “the administration of electroshocks and, sometimes, involuntary confinement in psychiatric and other facilities, which could result in physical and psychological harm.”

Though homosexuality has been legal for nearly two decades in China, centers offering to “cure” LGBT men and women still exist, as evidenced by undercover video taken in one such facility and aired by the UK’s Channel 4 this October.

Echoing its disappointment in the lack of a response from the Chinese government on black jails, the committee cited China for failing to offer clarity on where gay conversion therapy stands under the law. The practice, it said, should be unequivocally banned.

Following the report’s release, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry called into question the sourcing of the claims made by the committee.

“We have noticed that the opinions of the UN commission against torture are based on unverified information,” said spokeswoman Hua Chunying, according to Reuters. “We hope they can scrupulously abide by their mandate, further improve their work style and view China’s honoring of its agreements more fully and objectively.”

The committee raised concern over recent crackdowns on activists and lawyers, some 200 of whom have been arrested since July, as well as the use of torture to elicit confessions. The country’s legal authorities, the experts said, relied too heavily on admissions made under duress in order to obtain convictions.

For years, groups like Human Rights Watch have documented the widespread use of black jails — so-called because of the lack of oversight on their operation — where what are considered unlawful detentions are common. In a 2009 report, the organization said the most prisoners in such centers often are petitioners from rural areas “seeking redress for abuses ranging from illegal land grabs and government corruption to police torture.”

“Local officials, with the tolerance of public security authorities, establish the black jails as a way to ensure these complainants are detained, punished, and sent home so that these officials will not suffer demerits under rules that impose bureaucratic penalties when there is a large flow of petitioners from the area,” wrote Human Rights Watch.

More recent reports, including one released late last year by the activist group Chinese Human Rights Defenders, indicate the practice has continued. The group said that out of hundreds of cases it reviewed — hard numbers are next to impossible to come by — women made up the majority of those detained in unorthodox facilities. Those held, the activists wrote, “include some of the most vulnerable women in Chinese society: elderly women, women in fragile health, impoverished rural migrant women, women who have lost land or were victimized by forced eviction, disabled women with disabilities, and mothers with young children.”

The UN panel did applaud measures adopted by Chinese authorities in recent years, including changes to the country’s Law on State Compensation, permitting those who have suffered psychological harm to obtain redress. The report said that the government’s prohibition of the use of confessions obtained by torture as evidence was also a positive step, but said that the practice hadn’t ended.

On the whole, the tone of the report was overwhelmingly negative, and called on Beijing to implement widescale reforms among law enforcement and justice systems, including in their treatment of ethnic minorities. According to the committee, various groups, including Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Mongolians, have suffered unfair treatment. The experts wrote that they had received numerous reports indicating that Tibetans in particular had been victims of torture, and that some had died while in custody.

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford

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