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UN Special Investigator Says Torture Remains Widespread in China

The U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred Nowak, says torture in China remains "widespread." Mr. Nowak says that during his just-finished visit, he was granted full access to prisoners who have been physically and mentally abused, but he also complained that his investigation was obstructed by the Chinese authorities.

During his two-week visit to China, Manfred Nowak had the chance to visit prisoners and hold one-on-one meetings with those who had been tortured or mistreated.

Still, speaking to reporters at the end of the trip, the U.N. official complained of what he called "serious incidents" of obstruction by government agents.

"In other words, there was frequent surveillance of my interviews that I had outside prisons with victims' family members," he said, "by intelligence agents who tried to on the one hand listen to our conversation, but (I) also had many reports that victims' family members were actually prevented from meeting me by various means, putting them under house arrest, preventing them physically from coming to me, intimidation, etcetera."

Mr. Nowak said these restrictions, plus only two weeks of investigations limited to 30 cases, provided him with only a small glimpse of the overall incidence of torture in China.

His visit comes as China's central government is ostensibly working to stop physical abuse of prisoners. Beijing has said it plans to revise its criminal procedure law to ban the use of torture as a means of extracting confessions from detainees.

U.N. officials say allegations of torture have already declined somewhat since China first outlawed the practice in 1996, but Mr. Nowak on Friday said the practice remains "widespread," especially outside the big cities. Human rights advocates say torture is often used in China to extract confessions.

In April, the government freed a man who had spent 11 years in jail for allegedly murdering his wife, after the woman turned up alive. The man said he had confessed to the crime under torture.

Methods used allegedly include the use of electric shock batons, use of handcuffs and ankle fetters for extended periods, dunking in filthy water, suspension from overhead fixtures, and beatings.

The special rapporteur said he was not allowed to take photographs of the prisoners he interviewed, so it will be impossible for him to include the full details of what he saw in his report.

"I had to hand in all electronic equipment, mobile phones, in particular photo cameras, which I have not been requested (to do) in other countries. To take firsthand evidence, it is for me very important to take pictures," he explained.

Mr. Nowak visited detention centers in Beijing, Tibet and the predominantly Muslim Xinjiang autonomous region. The trip came after a decade of negotiations between U.N. officials and the Chinese government.