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Rights Group Says North Korean Detainees Routinely Tortured and Degraded

FILE - A North Korean prison policewoman stands guard behind fences at a jail on the banks of Yalu River near the Chongsong county of North Korea, opposite the Chinese border city of Dandong.

North Korea’s pretrial detention system is characterized by systemic torture, degrading treatment and rampant corruption, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch.

The New York-based group shed light on the secretive country’s criminal justice system in an 88-page report released Monday, based on accounts by former detainees as well as former government officials who fled the country.

Former detainees described that they were forced to sit still on the floor for days, heads down and with their eyes directed to the floor. They said if a detainee moved, guards would punish that person as well as give a collective punishment to all the detainees in a cell.

Some female detainees reported sexual harassment and assault, including rape.

'System is arbitrary, violent, cruel and degrading'

“North Korea’s pretrial detention and investigation system is arbitrary, violent, cruel and degrading,” said Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director.

“North Koreans say they live in constant fear of being caught in a system where official procedures are usually irrelevant, guilt is presumed, and the only way out is through bribes and connections,” he added.

There has been no comment from Pyongyang, and the North Korean government has repeatedly denied committing human rights abuses.

The report was based on interviews with eight former North Korean government officials who fled the country and 22 former detainees — 15 women and 7 men — all who were in detention after 2011, when current leader Kim Jong Un took power.

No names, just numbers

Four government officials told the rights group that North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party of Korea considers detainees to be inferior human beings and refers to them by numbers instead of their names.

Those interviewed described degrading treatment and unhygienic conditions, including very little food, insufficient floor space to sleep, and little opportunity to bathe. They said guards would demand bribes to unofficially allow family members to bring food.

The report called on the North Korean government to “end endemic torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment” in pretrial detention and interrogation facilities.

“The North Korean authorities should bring the system out of the dark ages by asking for international assistance to create a professional police force and investigative system that relies on evidence instead of torture to solve crimes,” said Adams.