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Beijing's Broken Promises on Human Rights

The National Human Rights Action Plan wraps up after two years, but confessions extracted by torture are still accepted in Chinese courts

Published in: The Wall Street Journal

China's first National Human Rights Action Plan committed the Chinese government to end the practice of "extortion of confessions by torture" and put police and security forces on notice that "it is strictly forbidden to extort confessions by torture." In death penalty cases, which Chinese law mandates for no fewer than 68 crimes, the plan stipulated that the death penalty "shall be strictly controlled and prudently applied." The two-year program outlined in the plan expired on Dec. 31, 2010.

So how has Beijing delivered on its promises? A Human Rights Watch report released today shows that the plan failed to have much impact, with police continuing to use torture to extract confessions and the courts continuing to accept these confessions as proof of guilt. Two high-profile cases in the past year demonstrate how little has changed.

Tibetan environmentalist and philanthropist Karma Samdrup says that Chinese security forces abused him to extract a confession of grave robbing. The police repeatedly beat him, ordered fellow detainees to beat him, subjected him to days of sleep deprivation and drugged him with a substance that made his eyes and ears bleed. A Xinjiang court turned a deaf ear to his protests of forced confession and sentenced him to a 15-year prison term on June 25, 2010.

Fan Qihang fared even worse. Mr. Fan, an entrepreneur ensnared in Chongqing's ongoing anticorruption campaign, wrote a letter in mid-2010 to China's Supreme People's Court explaining that his confession was the result of torture. A group of writers, scholars and lawyers wrote an open letter which backed Mr. Fan's claims by calling for an SPC investigation of torture allegations in Chongqing. The SPC instead approved Mr. Fan's death penalty verdict and he was executed on Sept. 26, 2010.

The Chinese government's judicial record in 2009-10 shows that the National Human Rights Action Plan was at best a missed opportunity, and at worst a cynical public relations exercise. The plan's introduction loftily described it as "a new chapter . . . in the history of the development of the cause of human rights in China." It committed China to improvements in areas including civil and political rights, and cooperation in the international human rights sphere. Existing guarantees in Chinese law, including the right to a fair trial, the right to petition the government for redress of grievances, and protection from torture and illegal detention, would be strengthened.

However, rather than pursuing the plan's praiseworthy objectives, the Chinese government rolled back key civil and political rights over the past two years. It expanded restrictions on media and Internet freedom, and tightened controls on lawyers, human rights defenders, and nongovernmental organizations. The courts continue to sentence dissidents to long prison terms on spurious state secrets or "subversion" charges. Despite a specific commitment to "take further measures to protect the rights of ethnic minorities," over the past two years Beijing broadened controls on Uighurs and Tibetans, and engaged in increasing numbers of enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions, including in secret, unlawful detention facilities known as "black jails."

The wave of official repression which followed the Nobel Prize Committee's Oct. 8 decision to award the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned writer and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo epitomized the government's mendacity on human rights. This included the harassment, interrogation, surveillance, detention or "house arrest" of more than 100 of Mr. Liu's friends, family members and supporters. Mr. Liu's wife Liu Xia has been under house arrest and incommunicado since mid-October 2010.

The picture isn't completely bleak. The Chinese government appears to have made some progress on economic and social rights. More importantly, the plan's drafting created-however, fleeting, controlled or contrived-a broader discussion with the Chinese government about human rights and abuses which it usually chooses to ignore or deny. Coupled with growing public rights awareness in China, the failed plan could be a precursor of more credible efforts to address human rights abuses.

But this shouldn't obscure the fact that Beijing has severely hurt its own credibility on human rights as well as other issues. As Chinese President Hu Jintao prepares to visit Washington to negotiate on issues ranging from trade to North Korea, it's worth pondering Beijing's empty human rights promises. Will a rising power that fails to honor commitments to its own people act responsibly to fulfill its commitments to other nations and their peoples?

Phelim Kine is a researcher in the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.

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