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China Takes Step to Stop Use of Torture

An appeals court in China's Sichuan province has barred the use of evidence obtained through torture, extortion and other forceful means, marking what legal analysts say is a small step toward ending forced confessions.

The announcement of the new rules came this week at the same time as the release of

She Xianglan after being declared innocent
, a man in central Hubei province who spent 11 years in prison after police forced him to confess to his wife's murder, which never happened. He was exonerated after the woman reappeared last month.

The case of Mr. She has received much publicity in China and triggered a public outcry over what many people say is the widespread police use of torture to extract confessions, a practice that has technically been banned in China since 1994.

The superior court in Sichuan province, prosecutors, and the provincial police issued a joint document Wednesday, saying testimony and evidence obtained by torturing, extorting, threatening, leading or tricking suspects and or by other illegal methods cannot be used as legal evidence.

Law professor Fu Hualing, an expert on Chinese criminal justice at the University of Hong Kong, says the fact that police have signed on is significant in a country where police have more power than the courts.

"The Communist Party pays serious attention to social order and political stability," said Fu Hualing. "Police remain [a] very powerful institution in China, politically and legally. Compared with the police, the court is a much weaker institution."

Professor Fu says, however, it is unlikely that other courts in China will follow the directive and start dismissing cases where evidence is improperly obtained. He says that in politically charged cases where authorities are determined to put someone in prison, the courts are likely to simply rely on other evidence to issue convictions.

Legal analysts say that to stop forced confessions, China will first have to undertake sweeping changes to shift power from the police and make its courts independent. However, analysts say such changes are not likely anytime soon.