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Chinese Court: No More Confessions Through Torture

FILE - Chinese police officers march out of the Jinan Intermediate People's Court in Jinan in eastern China's Shandong province, Aug. 21, 2013.
China's highest court has issued a directive aimed at stopping the widespread practice of extracting confessions through torture.

The Supreme People's Court said Wednesday in a microblog post that "freezing, hunger, drying, scorching, fatigue and other illegal methods" could no longer be used by law enforcement.

Although Chinese law already outlaws such practices in theory, activists maintain that coerced confessions are not uncommon in China, where conviction rates are near 100 percent.

Some of the torture occurs within the Communist Party's internal discipline system. This was highlighted by a September case in which a party member drowned after allegedly having his head held under water by investigators.

The directive comes days after the party announced a series of wide-ranging reforms, include an end to China's notorious re-education through labor camps, a reduction in the number of crimes which merit the death penalty, and increased judicial autonomy.

However, judicial independence in China is often just given lip service, as courts ultimately answer to the Communist Party. Activists welcome the directive but are, for now, sceptical of how much will change.

“The problem is always with the implementation,” said Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch. “In the judicial system in China the public security system is by far the most powerful institution, and there are effectively very few checks and balances on how it exerts its power.”

Rights advocates have long called on China to better safeguard the rights of the accused. Coercing confessions through torture and other means is a widespread practice, with some defendants in high-profile cases confessing to crimes in public before trials have taken place.

The Supreme People's Court also emphasized that courts much not yield to pressure from the media or “unreasonable petitioning by litigants.” Public outrage has sometimes swayed verdicts in high profile cases.

The court released a paper late last month calling for an end to corruption in courts and for officials to stop interfering in decisions.

Some information in this report was contributed by Reuters.