WorldThe Black Hole of China's Secret Prisons

The Black Hole of China’s Secret Prisons


Attorney Chang Weiping with his wife, Chen Zijuan, and their son in a picture of her Facebook profile.

In solitary confinement. No access to a lawyer. Without his family knowing his whereabouts, other than the fact that the security agents took him away. Submitted, denounced his own, to “torture to extract a confession”. Chinese human rights lawyer Chang Weiping, specializing in cases of discrimination and defending freedom of expression, spent five months and 16 days, between October 2020 and April this year, in what Chinese law describes and authorizes since 2013 as Home Surveillance in Designated Location (RSDL). It was his second time in this arrest process with a name as anodyne as it was feared among Chinese dissidents: those who went through it denounce humiliation, ill-treatment and physical and psychological torture.

The RSDL has been applied in China to numerous detainees considered especially problematic, either because of their notoriety or because they are critical — or perceived as critical — of the system. Managers and movie stars like Fan Bingbing, investigated for tax fraud, passed through her; dissidents such as Ai Weiwei, Liu Xiaobo, and Xu Zhiyong; several human rights lawyers like Chang himself. Fears that elite tennis player Peng Shuai could find herself in this predicament after denouncing sexual abuse by a senior Chinese official prompted calls from the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and international athletes to clarify her whereabouts. After three weeks missing, Peng appeared on a video conference this week to say she was “safe and sound”.

The human rights advocacy organization Safeguard Defenders, author of a recent report on the tool, claims that its use has multiplied since it was codified in 2013 as a result of an amendment to the Criminal Procedure Law in China. “Our analysis shows one of the most far-reaching, if not the most far-reaching systems of enforced disappearances around the world,” the organization said in a letter to the United Nations. “The use of RSDL is, without a doubt, extensive and systematic”, adds the NGO, whose founder, the Swede Peter Dahlin, underwent the procedure in 2015.

This instrument legalizes imprisonment in a secret place for a theoretical maximum period of six months, although on some occasions the term has been exceeded. It precedes formal arrest and there is no need for a court to approve it. According to the Chinese government, it is essential to defend national security and the country guarantees respect for the rights of prisoners. For human rights defenders it is a tool against activists that violates international standards and that, far from public scrutiny, opens the door to all kinds of physical and psychological abuse.

The protections provided by law —access to a lawyer, inspection by the Public Ministry— are, in practice, discarded. Police can invoke an “exception” if they believe the detainee poses a risk to national security, explains the Safeguard Defenders report, Locked Up: Inside China’s Secret RSDL Jails (Trapped: Inside China’s Secret RSDL Prisons), which brings testimonies from detainees and their families and examines the databases of Chinese courts.

Researchers at that organization found that in 2013 this procedure was used against at least 325 people. In 2020, against more than 5,800. In total, as of July 2021, they have located 22,845 cases in which court verdicts allude to the use of RSDL before trial. But the real numbers could be higher — between 38,000 and 57,000 people may have gone through this system, calculates the NGO — since the databases do not include cases thought to affect national security.

This instrument, the NGO denounces, “is frequently used outside its stated purpose, the phase of investigation of an offense, since a significant proportion is never formally arrested”. According to his calculations, a third of the victims he identified and interviewed were released on bail or without charge. “In its place, RSDL can be used as a tool to intimidate and to obtain testimony against others [suspeitos]”, points out.

Torture in the ‘tiger chair’

Chang’s case is typical. This young lawyer was arrested for the first time on January 12, 2020, after having participated, two weeks earlier, in a meeting with a group of human rights activists and lawyers in the city of Xiamen. After 10 days on RSDL in a hotel on the outskirts of his hometown (Baoji, central Shaanxi province), he was released. In October of that year, he published a video on YouTube in which he denounced having suffered torture during his detention: he was forced to sit all the time in the tiger chair –a metal artifact that immobilizes the prisoner and ends up causing swelling and severe pain in the buttocks and legs– and as a result, he lost sensation in two fingers. Five days after the video was published, he was arrested for the second time and entered the RSDL. In April, he was accused of “subversion against the state”, a crime that could cost him life in prison.

In September, already in ordinary prison, he was able to see his lawyer for the first time, 11 months after he was taken away by security officials. As he told his lawyer and his wife, the doctor of microbiology Chen Zijuan, he explains to EL PAÍS, during his two arrests he was taken to the same hotel in Baoji. A room awaited him there—different each time—with padded surfaces and sealed windows to keep him from hurting himself. In the second prison, the room had minimal dimensions: about 3×3 meters, half of which was occupied by security officials who interrogated him.

Over the five months and 16 days of his second stay in RSDL, the woman denounces, the lawyer was subjected to various tortures, ill-treatment and humiliations, including tiger chair again. His left hand was also immobilized for two months straight. He was unable to sleep and received only the bare minimum of food and water.

“Only when I did what the state security officials wanted did I improve the situation in terms of food, sleep and room temperature. they were causing a reaction Pavlovian, making him obedient like a dog”, says the microbiologist.

The situation affected his mental state. “By the third month at RSDL he became paranoid, believing that everyone in his life had been put in place by the authorities to harm him, including his mother and me. At the time, he was convinced that these suspicions were reasonable. He says that the psychological torture in that room was the most terrible thing for him.”

Other victims of the procedure report similar experiences. All denounce, at the very least, psychological abuse — including threats against their families — in endless interrogation sessions. Many report sleep deprivation or insufficient nutrition, the obligation to take suspicious medications or to remain in painful positions for hours.

“During interrogation sessions, if I didn’t say what they wanted to hear, they punished me. For example, they wouldn’t let me blink. They made me sit for a long time in the tiger chair or standing all day in my cell, even when I was too weak to stand and fell all the time,” says Yang Zhisun, a human rights activist arrested in Beijing at the end of 2015, in a statement presented in the report. of Safeguard Defenders.

The mistreatment of Chang left numerous consequences, claims Chen. Her husband, who was completely healthy before his arrest, now suffers from bloody stools, difficulty moving his spine and a herniated disc. “Before, he could drive 1,300 kilometers, the distance between Baoji and Shenzhen, my place of work, all at once. And now, having been in the hands of security, it has a lot of problems. All are a consequence of the long immobilization”.

Chang is formally detained in Baoji awaiting the completion of an investigation into him by the police, which is being prolonged in search of sufficient evidence to bring him to trial. “In general, when the Public Ministry orders an investigation to be prolonged, it is because the evidence is insufficient to bring a person to trial. But in such political cases [como o de Chang], the additional extensions are a way of surreptitiously extending his imprisonment,” adds his wife.

The young lawyer has not been able to see his wife and child since he was taken away more than a year ago. “The letters I wrote to him were read by his defender, he was not allowed to receive them. He also wrote letters to me, but the detention center did not authorize him to send them to me,” she says.