UPDATE: Updating to include comments from Lin Hsin-yi (林欣怡).
Video evidence has emerged that suggests China is either torturing suspects to force them to forego legal representation or misleading the public about their decisions, adding fuel to an international flare-up up over the government's abuse of domestic law and international conventions against torture.
The video shows human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng attesting that he would “never give up the right to hire his own lawyer” nor “accept the lawyer designated by the government, unless I am tortured."
It also confirms that Yu, one of China’s most prominent human rights lawyers and an outspoken advocate for political reform who endured almost 100 days in police custody in 2014-15, had previously passed power of attorney to his own lawyers, Liang Xiaojun and Zhang Weiyu.
"If they are not able to represent me, then my wife has the right to choose the lawyer for me," the statement adds.
The footage, which is accompanied by a separate video of Yu showing his passport to affirm his identity, flatly contradicts a document produced last week that Chinese authorities claim shows Yu had dismissed the lawyers hired by his wife, Chang Boyang and Xie Yang.
"After careful consideration, I hereby dismiss the two defense lawyers hired by [my wife], Chang Boyang and Xie Yang," Radio Free Asia reported Yu’s alleged statement as saying. "I will in future be hiring my own defense lawyers, and request that my wife Xu Yan not hire any more lawyers for me,” it added.
Both Chang and Xie have issued statements saying that they still consider themselves to be representing Yu until they can directly verify the authenticity of his statement.
Lin Hsin-yi (林欣怡), a spokesperson for the Taiwan-based human rights NGO coalition Covenants Watch, said that the video is evidence that Yu had been tortured into making the statement.
"More and more human rights lawyers are leaving video statements on their phone before they are arrested. [Yu's] statement shows evidence of torture, that is for sure," she said, adding that human rights defenders in China hope that more people can understand the difficulty of the situation they face.
Yu is being held in China’s eastern Jiangsu Province on charges of “inciting subversion of state power” and "obstruction of officials in the course of their duty.” He had issued a call for political reform similar to that detailed here shortly before his detention.
Subversion is the same charge that saw Taiwanese human rights and pro-democracy activist Lee Ming-che (李明哲) sentenced to five years in prison by a Chinese court in November last year.
Lee’s wife, Lee Ching-yu (李凈瑜), on Tuesday urged the European Commission to agitate for Lee’s release because it is unacceptable that her husband was arrested as a Chinese national.
In September 2017, Lee Ching-yu pre-empted her husband’s subsequent televised court confession, issuing an open statement that said: “If you see Lee Ming-che confess against his will in court, with shameful words and behaviors, please forgive him. This is just another drama staged by the Chinese government, it is called ‘forced confession.’”
Lee had been in detention for almost half a year before his trial.
RSDL and forced confessions
Yu’s pre-recorded video heightens international pressure on Beijing over the treatment endured by suspects in detention, many of whom are held under China’s Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL) system prior to being officially charged or tried.
RSDL is a custodial system, legalized in 2013, under which victims are held in solitary confinement, often in custom-built prisons or so-called black jails outside of the judicial system, for up to six months.
Detainees in RSDL are often deprived of sleep and interrogated for long periods about their alleged crimes, before being coerced or lured into making televised “confessions” that are then broadcast on Chinese state media, according to testimony of people who have endured the experience.
The issues of forced TV confessions came to the fore again Monday when China’s state-owned CCTV broadcast footage of the twins Chen Zhiyu and Chen Zhiheng confessing to forging documents on behalf of New York-based Chinese dissident Guo Wengui, who has used social media to issue a series of allegations critical of figures at the top of the Communist Party (CCP).
One of the men, Chen Zhigeng, has been a Canadian citizen since 2008, while his brother has lived there since 2008. China is attempting to use the confessions to increase pressure on the United States to extradite Guo.
The practice of releasing televised pre-trial confessions has come under intense criticism over the last two weeks following the release of a landmark report into the practice by human rights advocacy group Safeguard Defenders.
The report lists in harrowing detail how forced confessions, which came to the world’s attention in 2013 with the high-profile case of Liang Hong, a top GSK executive, violates China’s domestic law, as well as international agreements on the prevention of torture signed by the Chinese government.
The report includes testimony from Peter Humphrey, the British former journalist and corporate investigator embroiled in the massive GSK corruption scandal of 2013, who gave two televised confessions, one shortly after his arrest in August 2013 and another before his trial in July 2014.
Humphrey told The News Lens that at the time of his first “confession” he was “suffering from panic attacks and sleeplessness” because the lights in RSDL were never switched off and he had been denied medical treatment or access to a lawyer.
Speaking from his home in Surrey, UK, Humphrey said he signed an agreement to speak solely to print journalists as a result of being promised more lenient sentences for himself and his wife, who was also in detention but with whom he had been denied contact.
On the morning of his TV confession, he said he had no forewarning that he would appear that day, and had been offered and taken a drug to help him sleep, making him groggy and dazed.
Of the moment he walked into the room where his confession was filmed, he said: “I was ambushed – flashes and cameras and a large number of officers, as well as people in civs who were supposedly journalists but were people working for publications owned and operated by the police.”
The images carried in the TV confession obscured the fact that Humphrey's hands were handcuffed under a table, his legs locked in shackles and he was confined within a cage of iron bars during the ordeal.
Humphrey said he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of the experience of his detention and the process of forced confession, which he described as a “horrific image."
"The basic right to defend yourself from a position of dignity is taken away. All of that abuse is compressed in an explosive moment and you never escape from a memory like that,” he said.
At the time, overseas publications including The Wall Street Journal offered straightforward coverage of Humphrey’s “confession,” indicating the pervasive nature of the practice.
Teng Biao, a prominent Chinese human rights activist and lawyer who has defended suspects in several high-profile cases in China and is currently a Visiting Scholar at the U.S.-Asia Law Institute at New York University, said the practice of forced confessions “violates China's Constitutional Law, Criminal Procedural Law and international human rights standards like the UN Convention Against Torture that the Chinese government ratified.”
The confessions serve to “demonize and marginalize human rights defenders and label them as a state enemy or regular criminals. Most Chinese people don’t have channels to access the filtered information,” Teng said, adding that they also violate the principle of the assumption of innocence under Chinese law.
The Safeguard Defenders report analyzes 45 cases involving both foreign and domestic victims, demonstrating what report editor Rachel Tyrell told The News Lens amounted to “systemic abuse.”
Victims are usually human rights defenders, particularly those involved in the 709 crackdown such as Yu Wensheng, Tyrell said, adding that the study included testimonies from three Taiwanese victims and two Swedes, and one U.S. citizen, in addition to that of Humphrey.
“This is an important story and it must be covered but we are urging media to report it ethically and honestly and to point out that these are illegal, human rights violations, connected with a host of other human rights violations from torture to enforced disappearances,” she said.
Tyrell flagged the case of Li Wenzu, who was placed under house arrest for trying to raise awareness for her missing husband, the lawyer Wang Quanzhang, who has not been heard from for more than 1,000 days.
Wang’s work included defending human rights activists and followers of China’s banned Falun Gong spiritual movement.
"Many people suspect that Wang is still missing in part because he has refused to give a TV confession,” Tyrell said.
Speaking from his home in Thailand, the Swedish human rights NGO worker Peter Dahlin, who was himself detained in RSDL and forced to make a televised confession related to his work for the Chinese Urgent Action Working Group, in 2016, said that the likely reason Wang has remained disappeared for three years is that the authorities are unwilling to let him go unless he shows repentance.
“I know Wang quite well and that’s never going to happen,” he said. “He would rather die a martyr than give in.”
Dahlin also said that, as in the case of Yu Wensheng, increasing numbers of people in China are "preparing for their own forced TV confessions, going through these issues on their phones so someone has a video of them saying there is no way they will do certain things unless under duress."
Actions against Chinese media
The Safeguard Defenders report calls out CCTV and other Chinese influenced media publications that carry forced confessions, including Hong Kong’s Phoenix TV and The South China Morning Post (SCMP), for their complicity in torture and the undermining of Chinese and international law.
SCMP, which is owned by the Chinese Internet giant Alibaba, in February attracted criticism for carrying coverage of the second televised “confession” of Swedish bookseller Gui Minhai, a story it said it only agreed to cover “provided no limits were placed on the questions it asked.”
Tyrell said, “The media that carry these broadcasts are directly collaborating with the Chinese police and the CCP. We were extremely disappointed to see the SCMP’s coverage of the latest Gui Minhai ‘interview’. That is the first English language media to do so, I believe.”
The Safeguard Defenders report calls for Chinese state media to be required to register as foreign agents, and for sanctions to be applied to members responsible for acquiescing to the practice of forced confessions.
In the U.S., the Countering Foreign Propaganda Act currently making its way through Congress would require foreign media outlets to file semi-annual reports to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and openly declare that they are funded by foreign governments unless they retain editorial independence.
The bill stops short of asking members of overseas state-sponsored media to register as foreign agents, as was required by the U.S. Department of Justice of Russian state media RT America following revelations of Russia’s involvement in manipulating the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Peter Dahlin said that the growing international reach of the Chinese media should be a cause of concern for Western governments. “Chinese state media, with extensive global operations, are not put under pressure, even when they are collaborating with the police. CCTV international [China Global Television Network] is building a massive production studio in London, which needs to be put under scrutiny and review,” he said.
He added that the U.S. should invoke the Global Magnitsky Act to target and freeze the assets of those responsible for televising forced confessions, adding that this would trace a similarly punitive path to that pursued by the European Union on Iran’s Press TV in 2013 after that network aired forced confessions.
Teng Biao called for Western governments to reverse their policy of appeasing China over the issues of democracy and human rights in return for business and trade access, and other international issues like North Korea, anti-terrorism or climate change.
“I hope [the Safeguard Defenders] report and other publications on Chinese violations can change what Western government officials think about China, and they can realize the importance of human rights and freedom of Chinese people is related to their own political and economic interest."
Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a non-governmental organization that promotes freedom of the press, this week released a statement accompanying its latest global index of press freedom, in which China retained its position at 176th on the index, illustrating the threat posed to media freedom by China.
“Xi Jinping’s China is getting closer and closer to a contemporary version of totalitarianism,” RSF said in a statement accompanying the release, which detailed how other countries in the Asia-Pacific and their media are susceptible to falling under Chinese control and influence.
Editor: Morley J Weston