Verdict against Chang Weiping Epitomizes China’s Torture Problem

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Verdict against Chang Weiping Epitomizes China’s Torture Problem

(Chinese Human Rights Defenders, June 8, 2023) CHRD condemns the unfair and unjust nature of the verdict against human rights lawyer Chang Weiping. A Chinese court found Chang Weiping guilty on the charge of “subversion of state power” and sentenced him to 3.5 years in prison, in a verdict announced at the detention facility where Chang has been detained.  The Chinese government’s mishandling of Chang Weiping’s case has epitomized the government’s multiple failures to abide by its treaty party obligations under the international Convention against Torture and demonstrated an unwillingness to end its systematic torture in China. 

“This sentencing is outrageous. Chang Weiping should not be spending even one day in prison. The government’s handling of this case has been rife with procedural illegality and human rights abuses throughout, and the sentencing is a cruel reprisal against a lawyer who defended victims of injustice and who bravely revealed the details of torture that he had experienced,” said William Nee, CHRD’s Research and Advocacy Coordinator.

“The persecution of Chang Weiping is meant to deter other torture victims from coming forward. For the Chinese government, sadly, systemic use of torture is a feature, not a bug,” Nee added. 

Secret trial proceeded harsh sentence 

On June 8, at the Feng County Detention Center in Baoji City, Shanxi Province, authorities announced the verdict that Chang Weiping was sentenced to 3.5 years on the charge of “subversion of state power.” 

Authorities took nearly one year to announce the verdict after Chang was put on secret trial at the Feng County Court last July. Dozens of police officers, police vehicles, and COVID enforcers blocked Chang’s wife and other family members from attending the trial, which was eventually conducted behind closed doors and lasted less than two hours. 

Twice detained, repeatedly tortured

In December 2019, Chang Weiping participated in an informal gathering of rights lawyers and activists in the southern coastal city of Xiamen, and subsequently, all the participants of that gathering were systematically detained or questioned in a government crackdown. Chang was forcibly disappeared in the “residential surveillance in a designated location” (RSDL) system by Baoji public security on January 12, 2020 on the charge of “endangering national security.” He was released after ten days, although authorities canceled his lawyers license and subjected him to close surveillance.

On October 16, 2020, Chang Weiping posted a YouTube video describing how Baoji authorities had tortured him during that period. Chang revealed that he was strapped in and forced to sit on a “tiger chair” non-stop, with the exception of bathroom breaks. This non-stop sitting caused his thumb and index finger on his right hand to become numb and lose feeling. Both legs experienced swelling, and the pain was so intense that he cried, and wanted to see a doctor, but the interrogators would not allow it. Police only gave him minimal quantities of food while eating snacks in front of him. Police subjected him to interrogation under extreme hunger, exhaustion, and pain from prolonged sitting on the “tiger chair”.

But rather than launching a prompt and impartial investigation of police officers accused of committing torture and prosecuting any individuals who have been found to have violated Chinese law and international law, police then detained Chang Weiping and held him incommunicado for nearly eleven months. 

When he finally met a lawyer in September 2021, Chang revealed that police had tortured him again: He was once again subjected to the “tiger chair”, including one stint of six days and six nights. His room in the RSDL facility was very small, roughly 3 by 3 meters, with half being occupied by state security police (guobao). He was subjected to sleep deprivation. If he didn’t repeat the guobao’s talking points, for the purpose of extracting confessions, he wouldn’t be allowed to sleep. He was given very little plain food on a daily basis – just three mantou (steamed buns) per day. He was subjected to psychological torment, which he found most difficult to handle. Police frequently lied to him, threatened him, gave him hope and then dashed them. In total, he was subjected to RSDL for 5 months and 16 days, in which he was allowed to shower five times. He was subjected to video surveillance 24-7, with no privacy whatsoever.

Systemic failures of guardrails against torture

China ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) in 1998. The Chinese government has an obligation to implement the provisions of the convention through its domestic law and legal procedures in order to come into compliance with the treaty.  China’s implementation of CAT was last assessed by the Committee against Torture in 2015, and in 2016, the Committee issued its Concluding Observations with several recommendations for China to close the gap between its legal obligations and its laws and practices in real life.

Chang Weiping’s case illustrates how the government continues to ignore its own laws and international obligations under CAT:

Lack of investigation, impunity for torturers. According to Article 12 of the CAT, “(e)ach State Party shall ensure that its competent authorities proceed to a prompt and impartial investigation, wherever there is reasonable ground to believe that an act of torture has been committed in any territory under its jurisdiction.” 

However, once Chang Weiping revealed he was tortured, he was detained and tortured again, while his interrogators operated with complete impunity.

Interrogation aided with torture. Article 11 of the CAT states, “(e)ach State Party shall keep under systematic review interrogation rules, instructions, methods and practices as well as arrangements for the custody and treatment of persons subjected to any form of arrest, detention or imprisonment in any territory under its jurisdiction, with a view to preventing any cases of torture.”

However, rather than viewing Chang Weiping’s revelation of the use of a “tiger chair”, lack of food, lack of medical care, and sleep deprivation as a wakeup call to “review interrogation practices”, the government repeated the same torture practices during Chang’s second detention. 

Blocked access to lawyers. The UN treaty body urged China “…to adopt effective measures to ensure, in law and in practice, that detainees are afforded all legal safeguards from the very outset of the detention.” 

However, Chang Weiping was frequently denied access to lawyers even when outside of the RSDL system, when such a denial of a basic human right and safeguard against torture would be nominally “legal” according to Chinese law. Since his trial last July, Chang Weiping has not seen a lawyer, and as a result, the outside world does not know whether he is suffering from further torture or medical issues. 

Furthermore, the Supreme People’s Court, China’s highest court, approved extensions to Chang Weiping’s sentencing on three occasions. The case, and its gross miscarriage of justice, cannot be said to be solely the responsibility of rogue local officials in Baoji. 

Secret detention and enforced disappearance. China’s system of “residential surveillance in a designated location” (RSDL) allows for the police to detain criminal suspect for up to six months in secret facilities with no access to lawyers, family member, or the outside world. In 2015, the Committee urged that China “should repeal, as a matter of urgency, the provisions of the Criminal Procedure Law that allow suspects to be held de facto incommunicado, at a designated location, while under residential surveillance.”

However, China has not amended the Criminal Procedure Law that allows for legalized incommunicado detention and enforced disappearance under RSDL, where Chang Weiping was the victim of multiple rounds of torture. 

This lack of action stands in defiance not only of the Committee, but also of ten UN Special Procedures who wrote a detailed letter to the Chinese government in August 2018 that outlined how he use of RSDL was incompatible with China’s human rights obligations. In addition to the points of denying a suspect access to legal counsel and placing a person in a situation more susceptible to torture, the letter also expressed concerns about the lack of oversight of the police, who have complete discretion in determining the legality of placing someone in RSDL.  

Unfortunately, Chang’s case is far from an isolated incident, and numerous similar cases of torture in RSDL have been documented by human rights organizations.

Courts refusals to thrown out “evidence” extracted through torture. Article 15 of the CAT states, “(e)ach State Party shall ensure that any statement which is established to have been made as a result of torture shall not be invoked as evidence in any proceedings, except against a person accused of torture as evidence that the statement was made.” Furthermore, the Committee said that China “should adopt effective measures to strictly enforce the new legal provisions and guarantee that coerced confessions or statements are inadmissible in practice, except when invoked against a person accused of torture as evidence that the statement was made.”

However, in the pre-trial hearing on July 11, 2022, at the Feng County Detention Center, Chang Weiping brought up the issue of dismissing illegally obtained evidence, meaning oral confessions extracted through torture by police.  Chang Weiping’s guilty verdict and sentencing implies his attempts to have illegally obtained evidence dismissed, as should happen according to Article 56 of China’s Criminal Procedure Law, were not ultimately successful. 

What to do?

CHRD urges the international human rights stakeholder to take action, especially the

June 26 International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, to end torture, hold torturers accountable, and support victims like Chang Weiping.

The UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and other UN human rights experts must voice concern regarding the case of Chang Weiping and other victims of torture in China.

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention should consider and issue an opinion on the imprisonment of Chang Weiping in retaliation for exercising his human rights, in violation of his legal and international due process rights.

The UN treaty body Committee against Torture should urge the Chinese government to submit is long-overdue state report to the Committee (whose scheduled due date was on December 9, 2019) and be prepared to review China’s implementation of its treaty obligations without state report if the delay continues.

The heart of China’s torture problem is not one of resources or governance capacity, but rather, the government’s authoritarian rule relies on the use of torture and ill-treatment as a tool for maintaining “stability” of the Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly of power in the absence of democracy and rule of law. 

“That’s why it’s so important we demand freedom and justice for Chang Weiping. He is paying a heavy price for his courageous challenge to China’s torture machinery that continues to produce injustice and claim more victims,” said Renee Xia, CHRD’s Director.

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