Unofficial survey reveals appalling conditions in China’s detention centres

Linda Lew

An unofficial survey on China’s detention centres has confirmed that many detainees are held in appalling conditions and some are maltreated during their incarceration, including being beaten by guards.

Guangzhou-based lawyer Huang Sha sent questionnaires on the conditions of the facilities to about 100 other lawyers across China between July and November, asking them to fill in the surveys on behalf of their clients after speaking to them at the centres.

He received completed questionnaires from about 30 lawyers covering most provinces, regions and municipalities except Tibet, Xinjiang, Gansu, Ningxia, Jilin and Tianjin.

“As far as I know, this is the first [survey] of its kind to look at the conditions of detention centres [in China] in a systematic way,” Huang said.

“Before that, there has been very little information about the detention centres, and [there are no] pictures of them or what facilities they have. You can’t find any of that,” he said.

“This study is meant to let the public know more about the conditions of the facilities.”

Huang said that he hoped increased awareness could help prevent abuses and curb arbitrary detention.

The survey found that 90 per cent of respondents slept in cramped quarters with a third saying their sleeping space was overcrowded. One detainee told his lawyer that he and six other people slept together on the floor, shoulder to shoulder.

According to police guidelines, detainees should have at least two hours every day for outdoor activities. However, the survey found that almost two-thirds of respondents were granted less than two hours of outdoor activities, with 18 per cent never being let out of their cells at all.

Most detainees also did not have daily access to hot showers, with over half of the respondents only getting cold showers. Only 20 per cent could have a hot shower every day, the survey found.

Other abuses revealed by the study included detainees being beaten by guards, going hungry or being deprived of medical treatment.

Huang said he had not been contacted by the authorities since he released the survey results on Thursday. He has shared the report with other lawyers and plans to send it to the government, and to request urgent improvements be made to detention centres.

“The authorities will probably try to suppress me, but I’m used to it,” Huang said.

Former Chinese rights lawyer arrested for ‘inciting subversion’

According to Wang Zhenyu, a lawyer in Beijing who did not take part in the survey, conditions at detention centres varied but he said they had improved in recent years.

However, he said Huang’s study failed to ask critical questions such as whether detainees had gone through the proper judicial process, including a trial, how long they had been held and whether their right to communicate with family and lawyers had been protected.

Under Chinese law, a criminal suspect can be held in detention for as long as 157 months. In extreme cases, the incarceration can be extended indefinitely.

Arbitrary detention gained renewed attention this month after former Huawei employee Li Hongyuan was detained on suspicion of blackmail for 251 days after he received 300,000 yuan (US$43,000) in severance pay from the tech company. He was detained in Shenzhen after Huawei reported him to the police.

Li said he was innocent and that the payment had been agreed to by both parties. He also claimed that this happened because he was a whistle-blower at the company. He was released in August without charge and received compensation from the government, according to reports.

Experts have questioned the legality of incarcerating people, sometimes for long periods of time, before they have gone through due legal process.

“This is a fundamental issue with our legal system. The chance of people being detained before trial is very high,” Wang said.

“Under the constitution, everyone is innocent until proven guilty. These people are being detained when they are potentially innocent. It is already a form of punishment. An innocent person could have wrongly been punished in this process.”

In early December, Supreme People’s Court prosecutor Luo Qingdong said the procuratorate was working to reduce unnecessary detention and prevent violation of suspects’ rights, Xinhua reported.

Between January and November this year, for the almost 2 million people who were prosecuted, 45 per cent – or around 906,000 – were not detained before trial. This was an improvement over 2017, when the rate was three percentage points lower.

In 2015, about 300 rights lawyers and activists were detained, interrogated or threatened in the sweeping “709 crackdown”, which observers have described as the harshest crackdown on human rights and civil society in decades. Several of the lawyers, such as Wang Quanzhang and Li Heping, were held in detention for two or more years before they went to trial, according to reports.

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