Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
Security forces reportedly committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. In many instances, few or no details were available.
In May environmentalist Lei Yang died under mysterious circumstances while in custody in Beijing following a brief altercation with public security officials. Authorities initially claimed 29-year-old Lei had suffered a heart attack, although an autopsy determined the cause of death was suffocation. Lei’s body also showed bruising on his arms and head. A subsequent investigation found that public security officials had blocked the inquiry into the cause of Lei’s death. In June, two public security officers were arrested on suspicion of “dereliction of duty.” Subsequent reporting on the case was censored. In late December officials announced that five law enforcement officers would not stand trial for Lei’s death.
In December, 58-year-old democracy activist Peng Ming died under suspicious circumstances in prison. His family was unable to view the body, and authorities denied his adult children permission to enter the country to collect his ashes.
In June, Tibetan Buddhist nun Yeshi Lhakdron of Kardze prefecture in the Tibetan area of Kham, now administered under Sichuan Province, died in custody due to torture, according to the Tibetan Center for Human Rights. Also in June a 40-year-old man from Kardze who was detained on suspicion of possessing a gun died in custody, reportedly due to severe torture (see the Tibet Annex for further information).
Authorities did not account for the circumstances surrounding the 2015 death of Zhang Liumao, who died suddenly in custody in Guangzhou after being detained and charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” His family’s lawyer found his corpse was bruised with apparent signs of torture. He had not yet been tried at the time of his death. During the year Zhang’s sister, Zhang Wuzhou, made multiple attempts to file lawsuits against the government over the mishandling of her brother’s forensic report. Public security imposed a foreign travel ban on her and detained her outside a Guangzhou courthouse in April. The court eventually accepted the lawsuit.
A number of violent incidents in the XUAR resulted in multiple deaths. For example, media reported that at least five persons, including two public security officers, died in May as a result of violent unrest sparked when an officer allegedly shot and killed a Uighur prisoner in a juvenile detention center in Urumqi. Official accounts of these events generally blamed “terrorists” or “separatists” and portrayed incidents involving violence as terrorist attacks on community members and security personnel. The government’s control of information coming out of the XUAR, together with its increasingly tight security posture there, made it difficult to verify reports (see also the Tibet annex for incidents of abuse).
Although legal reforms in recent years decreased the use of the death penalty and improved the review process, authorities executed some defendants in criminal proceedings following convictions that lacked due process and adequate channels for appeal.
There were multiple reports of individuals detained by authorities and held at undisclosed locations.
As of the end of the year, 16 individuals detained as a result of the July 2015 “709” roundup of more than 300 human rights lawyers and legal associates remained in pretrial detention at undisclosed locations without access to attorneys or to their family members. The crackdown primarily targeted those individuals who worked as defense lawyers on prominent human rights and public interest cases, including the 2008 melamine scandal, the Beijing “feminist five” detentions, the Xu Chunhe case, and cases involving the sexual abuse of young girls. The clients of those targeted included jailed Uighur economist Ilham Tohti, members of unregistered churches, and Falun Gong practitioners. The names of those who were still detained at the end of the year are Li Heping, Xie Yanyi, Wang Quanzhang, Liu Sixin, Xie Yang, Li Chunfu, Wu Gan, Lin Bin, Yin Xu’an, Wang Fang, Zhang Wanhe, Liu Xing, Li Yanjun, Yao Jianqing, Tang Zhishun, and Xing Qianxian.
Jiang Tianyong, a lawyer who advocated on behalf of the family members of the “709” detainees, disappeared on November 21 in Henan Province. He subsequently was placed under “residential surveillance at an undisclosed location” on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power.”
While several “709” detainees still awaited trial, some lawyers were convicted in trials lacking due process (see section 1.e.), and others were released on bail from formal custody after detentions that lasted, in many cases, more than a year. For example, in August attorney Wang Yu was released from detention after the government released a video that many observers called a forced confession. In the video Wang said she would no longer allow herself to be “used by foreign forces.” Wang’s attorney learned about her release when he saw the televised statement. Wang’s husband, law associate Bao Longjun, was released as well in August. The couple was reportedly reunited with their son, Bao Zhuoxuan, who had tried to flee the country via Burma in 2015, where he was intercepted by government agents and returned to China. The couple’s lawyer and other friends and associates were unable to contact them since their release from formal detention, and reports indicated that they remained under some form of residential surveillance and detention.
In March lawyer Zhang Kai was released from detention after seven months. Zhang was known for his work defending Wenzhou Christian churches that faced demolition or forced cross removals. He had been detained in 2015 on the eve of a planned meeting with a prominent foreign diplomat. Zhang’s release also followed a statement in which he “confessed “ on state-run television to his alleged crimes and urged other citizens “not to collude with foreigners.” In August, Zhang took to social media to recant his earlier confession, which he said was made under conditions of duress. Authorities responded by surrounding his family home and threatening to rearrest him. Zhang remained under house arrest and was not able to resume his legal duties.
A number of extraterritorial disappearances occurred during the year. Former Southern Metropolis Daily journalist Li Xin, who fled to India in 2015 after allegedly leaking documents detailing the Communist Party’s propaganda policies, went missing on a train in Thailand in January and later reappeared in China in custody of security officials. He told his wife by telephone that he had returned voluntarily, but Thai immigration officials told the media they had no exit record for Li.
Five men working in Hong Kong’s publishing industry disappeared between October and December 2015. In addition to being Hong Kong residents, Gui Minhai was a Swedish citizen and was taken while he was in Thailand; Lee Bo was a British citizen taken from Hong Kong. Media coverage of the cases noted that the men worked for Mighty Current, a publishing house, and its affiliate, Causeway Bay Bookstore, which were known for selling books critical of the CCP and its leaders. In a televised “confession” released by Chinese authorities in the spring, Gui Minhai said he had “voluntarily returned” to China to “bear the responsibility” for a traffic accident that supposedly occurred more than a decade before. Another bookseller, Hong Kong resident Lam Wing Kee, was detained at the border crossing into Shenzhen in October 2015 and released after five months. Upon his return to Hong Kong, Lam immediately recanted his televised confession, saying it was scripted and recorded under extreme pressure. He also said he was forced to sign away his legal rights when he was taken to Ningbo by men who claimed they were from a “central special unit.” With the exception of Swedish citizen Gui Minhai, the other detained booksellers were released during the year but remained under surveillance, travel restrictions, and the threat of punishment after returning to Hong Kong. At year’s end Gui remained in incommunicado detention in the mainland.
The government still had not provided a comprehensive, credible accounting of all those killed, missing, or detained in connection with the violent suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations. The Dui Hua Foundation reported that Miao Deshun, the last known political prisoner dating from the Tiananmen era, was released during the year. Many activists who were involved in the 1989 demonstrations and their family members continued to suffer official harassment. Chen Yunfei, arrested in 2015 for visiting the grave of a Tiananmen victim, was formally brought to trial in July on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” Chengdu authorities subsequently postponed his trial without explanation. In December a rescheduled hearing was also reportedly delayed after Chen dismissed his lawyers, citing their harassment at the hands of local security officials outside the courthouse. Others who attempted to commemorate the protests and associated deaths were themselves detained or otherwise targeted. In late May, seven activists who appeared in a photograph marking the massacre’s 27th anniversary were detained on suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” They were released several weeks later. In June, Chengdu activists Fu Hailu, Zhang Junyong, Luo Yufu, and Chen Bing were detained for allegedly creating and marketing a liquor whose label commemorated the 1989 crackdown. They faced charges of “inciting subversion” and were held in the Chengdu Municipal Detention Center.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The law prohibits the physical abuse and mistreatment of detainees and forbids prison guards from coercing confessions, insulting prisoners’ dignity, and beating or encouraging others to beat prisoners. Amendments to the criminal procedure law exclude evidence, including coerced confessions obtained through illegal means, in certain categories of criminal cases. Enforcement of these legal protections continued to be lax.
Numerous former prisoners and detainees reported they were beaten, subjected to electric shock, forced to sit on stools for hours on end, hung by the wrists, raped, deprived of sleep, force-fed, and otherwise subjected to physical and psychological abuse. Although ordinary prisoners were abused, prison authorities reportedly singled out political and religious dissidents for particularly harsh treatment. In some instances close relatives of dissidents also were singled out for abuse.
The problem of torture was systemic, according to a UN Committee against Torture report released in December 2015 that detailed the extent to which torture was embedded in the criminal justice system. While the UN committee acknowledged some improvements, such as the broader use of surveillance cameras during interrogations, the report stated that torture was “entrenched.”
A May 2015 Human Rights Watch report found continued widespread use of degrading treatment and torture by law enforcement authorities. Some courts continued to admit coerced confessions as evidence, despite the criminal procedure law, which restricts the use of unlawfully obtained evidence. After examining 158,000 criminal court verdicts published on the Supreme People’s Court website, Human Rights Watch found that judges excluded confessions in only 6 percent of the cases in which torture was alleged and that all the defendants were convicted, even in the cases when evidence such was excluded. Lawyers reported that interrogators turned to less-detectable methods of torture. Confessions were often videotaped; harsh treatment beforehand was not. Lawyers who attempted to shed light on the problem of torture in the criminal justice system themselves became targets of intimidation and harassment.
Family members asserted that rights lawyer Xie Yang was repeatedly tied up and beaten during his lengthy detention in Changsha, Hunan Province. According to reports leaked from the detention facility, at one point Xie required hospitalization after he was beaten until he lost consciousness. As of December he was still in detention. There were multiple reports that other lawyers, law associates, and activists detained in the “709” crackdown also suffered various forms of torture, abuse, or degrading treatment, including Sui Muqing, whom public security officers reportedly kept awake for days on end, and Yin Xu’an, whom security agents repeatedly tortured in an attempt to extract a confession. The lawyers of Wu Gan, another “709” detainee, also reported that Wu had been tortured following their meeting with him at the Tianjin No. 2 Detention Center. Guangdong attorney Sui Muqing, who was detained in July 2015 and held under residential surveillance at an undisclosed location until the end of the year, was reportedly tortured while in custody.
Members of the minority Uighur ethnic group reported systematic torture and other degrading treatment by law enforcement officers and the penal system (see section 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities). Practitioners of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement reported systematic torture more often than other groups.
The law states that psychiatric treatment and hospitalization should be “on a voluntary basis,” but it has loopholes that allow authorities and family members to commit persons to psychiatric facilities against their will and fails to provide meaningful legal protections for persons sent to psychiatric facilities. The law does not provide for the right to a lawyer and restricts a person’s right to communicate with those outside the psychiatric institutions.
According to the Legal Daily (a state-owned newspaper covering legal affairs), the Ministry of Public Security directly administered 23 high-security psychiatric hospitals for the criminally insane (also known as ankang facilities). While many of those committed to mental health facilities had been convicted of murder and other violent crimes, there were also reports of activists and petitioners involuntarily subjected to psychiatric treatment for political reasons. Public security officials may commit individuals to ankang facilities and force treatment for “conditions” that have no basis in psychiatry. In February, one domestic NGO reported that it had tracked more than 30 cases of activists “who were forcibly committed to psychiatric institutions in 2015, often without their relatives’ knowledge or consent.” For example, Shanghai authorities dispatched agents to intercept petitioner Lu Liming when he was en route to Beijing to protest. They detained him in a psychiatric facility, tied him to a bed for days, beat him, and forcibly medicated him.
As of January 2015, the government claimed it was ending the long-standing practice of involuntarily harvesting the organs of executed prisoners for use in transplants. In August the official Xinhua News Agency reported 10,057 organ transplants from voluntary donors were performed in the country in 2015, with transplants expected to increase 40 to 50 percent in 2016. Some international medical professionals and human rights researchers questioned the voluntary nature of the system, the accuracy of official statistics, and official claims about the source of organs. The country has no tradition of organ donorship, and its organ donor system remained fledgling.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Conditions in penal institutions for both political prisoners and criminal offenders were generally harsh and often degrading.
Physical Conditions: Authorities regularly held prisoners and detainees in overcrowded conditions with poor sanitation. Food often was inadequate and of poor quality, and many detainees relied on supplemental food, medicines, and warm clothing provided by relatives. Prisoners often reported sleeping on the floor because there were no beds or bedding. In many cases provisions for sanitation, ventilation, heating, lighting, and access to potable water were inadequate.
Adequate, timely medical care for prisoners remained a serious problem, despite official assurances that prisoners have the right to prompt medical treatment. Prison authorities withheld medical treatment from political prisoners. In April prison officials refused requests to send ailing Guangdong activist Yang Maodong (better known by his pen name Guo Feixiong) to a hospital for medical tests. To protest his treatment, he went on a hunger strike, during which prison officials reportedly force-fed him. Guo was also reportedly routinely tortured. In one attempt to humiliate him, prison officials performed a rectal exam on Guo, videotaped the procedure, and threatened to post the video online. In August authorities transferred him to a different prison hospital, and he ended his hunger strike.
Political prisoners were held with the general prison population and reported being beaten by other prisoners at the instigation of guards. Some reported being held in the same cells as death row inmates. Authorities did not allow some dissidents supplemental food, medicine, and warm clothing from relatives.
Conditions in administrative detention facilities were similar to those in prisons. Beating deaths occurred in administrative detention facilities. Detainees reported beatings, sexual assaults, lack of proper food, and limited or no access to medical care.
Administration: Authorities used alternatives to incarceration for both violent and nonviolent offenders. According to the State Council’s 2016 White Paper on Legal Rights, 2.7 million individuals participated in community correction, with an estimated 689,000 individuals in the program as of September. The same source reported an annual increase of 51,000 individuals in community correction programs.
There were no prison ombudsmen per se, but prisoners and detainees are legally entitled to submit complaints to judicial authorities without censorship and request investigation of credible allegations of inhuman conditions. The law states that letters from a prisoner to higher authorities of the prison or to the judicial organs shall be free from examination; it was unclear to what extent the law was implemented. While authorities occasionally investigated credible allegations of inhuman conditions, the results were not documented in a publicly accessible manner. Many prisoners and detainees did not have reasonable access to visitors and could not engage in religious practices.
Independent Monitoring: Information about prisons and various other types of administrative and extralegal detention facilities was considered a state secret, and the government typically did not permit independent monitoring.
Improvements: In August the Supreme People’s Procuratorate published data that favored an “education first” approach towards juvenile crime, specifically focusing on counseling over punishment, according to the Dui Hua Foundation. The same figures showed the number of juvenile arrests later dismissed by the court expanded from 26 percent in 2014 to 29 percent in 2015.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
Arbitrary arrest and detention remained serious problems. The law grants public security officers broad administrative detention powers and the ability to detain individuals for extended periods without formal arrest or criminal charges. Throughout the year lawyers, human rights activists, journalists, religious leaders, and former political prisoners and their family members continued to be targeted for arbitrary detention or arrest.
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
The main domestic security agencies include the Ministry of State Security, the Ministry of Public Security, and the People’s Armed Police. The People’s Liberation Army is primarily responsible for external security but also has some domestic security responsibilities. Local jurisdictions also frequently used civilian municipal security forces, known as “urban management” officials, to enforce administrative measures. Oversight of these forces was localized and ad hoc. By law officials can be criminally prosecuted for abuses of power, but such cases were rarely pursued.
The Ministry of Public Security coordinates the civilian police force, which is organized into specialized agencies and local, county, and provincial jurisdictions. Procuratorate oversight of the public security forces was limited. Corruption at every level was widespread. Public security and urban management officials engaged in extrajudicial detention, extortion, and assault.
Regulations state that officers in prisons face dismissal if found to have beaten, applied corporal punishment, or abused inmates or to have instigated such acts, but there were no reports these regulations were enforced.
In the absence of reliable data, it was difficult to ascertain the full extent of impunity for the domestic security apparatus, but anecdotal accounts of abuse were common on social media and sometimes appeared in state media reports as well. Authorities often announced investigations following cases of reported killings by police. It remained unclear, however, whether these investigations resulted in findings of police malfeasance or disciplinary action.
ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES
Criminal detention beyond 37 days requires approval of a formal arrest by the procuratorate, but in cases pertaining to “national security, terrorism, and major bribery,” the law permits up to six months of incommunicado detention without formal arrest. After formally arresting a suspect, public security authorities are authorized to detain a suspect for up to an additional seven months while the case is investigated.
After the completion of an investigation, the procuratorate can detain a suspect an additional 45 days while determining whether to file criminal charges. If charges are filed, authorities can detain a suspect for an additional 45 days before beginning judicial proceedings. Public security sometimes detained persons beyond the period allowed by law, and pretrial detention periods of a year or longer were common.
The law stipulates that detainees be allowed to meet with defense counsel before criminal charges are filed. Some criminal defense attorneys stated that under the 2013 revised criminal procedure law, their ability to meet with clients improved. In some routine cases, defense attorneys could arrange visits at any time and have private meetings with their clients in detention centers. This generally did not apply to cases considered politically sensitive.
The criminal procedure law requires a court to provide a lawyer to a defendant who has not already retained one, who has various disabilities or is a minor, or who faces a life sentence or the death penalty. This law applies whether or not the defendant is indigent. Courts may also provide lawyers to other criminal defendants who cannot afford them, although courts often did not do so.
Criminal defendants are entitled to apply for bail (also translated as “a guarantor pending trial”) while awaiting trial, but the system did not appear to operate effectively, and authorities released few suspects on bail.
The law requires notification of family members within 24 hours of detention, but authorities often held individuals without providing such notification for significantly longer periods, especially in politically sensitive cases. In some cases notification did not occur. Under a sweeping exception, officials are not required to provide notification if doing so would “hinder the investigation” of a case. The revised criminal procedure law limits this exception to cases involving state security or terrorism, but public security officials have broad discretion to interpret what is “state security.”
The law allows for residential surveillance rather than detention in a formal facility under certain circumstances. With the approval of the next higher-level authorities, officials may place a suspect under “residential surveillance” at a designated place of residence (i.e., a place other than the suspect’s home) for up to six months when they suspect crimes of endangering state security, terrorism, or serious bribery and believe that surveillance at the suspect’s home would impede the investigation. Human rights organizations and detainees themselves reported that this practice left detainees at a high risk for torture. Authorities may also prevent defense lawyers from meeting with suspects in these categories of cases.
The law provides for the right to petition the government for resolution of grievances, but many citizens who traveled to Beijing to petition the central government were subjected to arbitrary detention, often by security agents dispatched from the petitioner’s hometown. Petitioners reported harsh treatment by security officials. In February officers from the Fuyou Street Station of the Xicheng District Public Security Bureau in Beijing reportedly beat Qiao Zhigang, the leader of a group of retired and disabled members of the military, and detained many others who had gathered with Qiao to protest the government’s failure to provide promised benefits and compensation.
Authorities used administrative detention to intimidate political and religious activists and to prevent public demonstrations. Forms of administrative detention included compulsory drug rehabilitation treatment (for drug users), “custody and training” (for minor criminal offenders), and “legal education” centers for political and religious activists, particularly Falun Gong practitioners. The maximum stay in compulsory drug rehabilitation centers is two years, including what was generally a six-month stay in a detoxification center.
Arbitrary Arrest: Authorities detained or arrested persons on allegations of revealing state secrets, subversion, and other crimes as a means to suppress political dissent and public advocacy. These charges–including what constitutes a state secret–remained ill defined, and any piece of information could be retroactively designated a state secret. Authorities also used the vaguely worded charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” broadly against many civil rights activists. It remained unclear what this term means. Authorities also detained citizens and foreigners under broad and ambiguous state secret laws for, among other actions, disclosing information on criminal trials, meetings, commercial activity, and government activity. Authorities sometimes retroactively labeled a particular action as a violation of state secret laws. A counterespionage law grants authorities the power to require individuals and organizations to cease any activities deemed a threat to national security. Failure to comply could result in seizure of property and assets.
There were multiple reports of lawyers, petitioners, and other rights activists being arrested or detained for lengthy periods of time, only to have the charges later dismissed for lack of evidence. Many activists were subjected to extralegal house arrest, denied travel rights, or administratively detained in different types of facilities, including “black jails.” In some cases public security officials put pressure on schools not to allow the children of prominent political detainees to enroll. Conditions faced by those under house arrest varied but sometimes included isolation in their homes under guard by security agents. Security officials were frequently stationed inside the homes. Authorities placed many citizens under house arrest during sensitive times, such as during the visits of senior foreign government officials or preceding the annual plenary sessions of the National People’s Congress, the G20 summit, the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, and sensitive anniversaries in Tibetan areas and the XUAR. Some of those not placed under house arrest were taken by security agents to remote areas on so-called forced vacations.
In early September security officials abducted rights lawyer Li Yuhan from the hospital where she was receiving treatment for a heart condition and beat and choked her when she resisted. She was told she would need to take a “vacation” before the G20 Summit to ensure she did not cause trouble. She was held overnight at an undisclosed location, where security officials denied her access to the bathroom. She was released the next day without charges.
Despite being released from prison in 2011, activist Hu Jia remained under extrajudicial house arrest during the year. Human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who was released from prison in 2014, remained confined under strict house arrest.
Pretrial Detention: Pretrial detention could last longer than one year. Defendants in “sensitive cases” reported being subjected to prolonged pretrial detention. Many of the “709” detainees were held in pretrial detention for more than a year without access to their families or their lawyers.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
Although the law states that the courts shall exercise judicial power independently, without interference from administrative organs, social organizations, and individuals, the judiciary did not, in fact, exercise judicial power independently. Judges regularly received political guidance on pending cases, including instructions on how to rule, from both the government and the CCP, particularly in politically sensitive cases. The CCP Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission has the authority to review and direct court operations at all levels of the judiciary. All judicial and procuratorate appointments require approval by the CCP Organization Department.
Corruption often influenced court decisions, since safeguards against judicial corruption were vague and poorly enforced. Local governments appointed and paid local court judges and, as a result, often exerted influence over the rulings of those judges.
A CCP-controlled committee decided most major cases, and the duty of trial and appellate court judges was to craft a legal justification for the committee’s decision.
Courts are not authorized to rule on the constitutionality of legislation. The law permits organizations or individuals to question the constitutionality of laws and regulations, but a constitutional challenge may be directed only to the promulgating legislative body. Lawyers had little or no opportunity to rely on constitutional claims in litigation.
Media sources indicated public security authorities used televised confessions of lawyers, foreign and domestic bloggers, journalists, and business executives in an attempt to establish guilt before their criminal trial proceedings began or as a method of negotiating release from detention, such as the televised statements of Wang Yu, Zhang Kai, and Swedish national Peter Dahlin. NGOs asserted such statements were likely coerced, perhaps by torture, and some detainees who confessed recanted upon release and confirmed that their confessions had been coerced. No provision in the law allows the pretrial broadcast of confessions by criminal suspects.
“Judicial independence” remained one of the reportedly off-limit subjects that the CCP ordered university professors not to discuss (see section 2.a., Academic Freedom and Cultural Events).
Although the amended criminal procedure law reaffirms the presumption of innocence, the criminal justice system remained biased toward a presumption of guilt, especially in high-profile or politically sensitive cases. According to the March work report submitted to the National People’s Congress (NPC) by the Supreme People’s Court (SPC), more than 1.2 million individuals were convicted while 1,039 were acquitted in 2015. The low acquittal rate of less than 1 percent has persisted for many years, although the overall number of acquittals during the year rose from the 778 recorded in 2014.
In many politically sensitive trials, courts announced guilty verdicts immediately following proceedings with little time for deliberation. Courts often punished defendants who refused to acknowledge guilt with harsher sentences than those who confessed. The appeals process rarely reversed convictions and failed to provide sufficient avenues for review; remedies for violations of defendants’ rights were inadequate.
Regulations of the SPC require trials to be open to the public, with the exception of cases involving state secrets, privacy issues, minors, or, on the application of a party to the proceedings, commercial secrets. Authorities used the state secrets provision to keep politically sensitive proceedings closed to the public, sometimes even to family members, and to withhold defendant’s access to defense counsel. Court regulations state that foreigners with valid identification should be allowed to observe trials under the same criteria as citizens, but foreigners were permitted to attend court proceedings only by invitation. As in past years, authorities barred foreign diplomats and journalists from attending a number of trials. In some instances the trials were reclassified as “state secrets” cases or otherwise closed to the public. During the year foreign diplomats attempted to attend at least a dozen public trials throughout the country. In many instances court officials claimed there were no available seats in the courtroom.
Portions of some trials were broadcast, and court proceedings were a regular television feature. In September, Zhou Qiang, the president of the SPC and head of the judiciary, announced the debut of a website, the Chinese Open Trial Network. It offered videos of more than 67,000 criminal, administrative, and civil proceedings, including all open SPC hearings and some select lower court hearings. The CCP leadership of the court involved, however, must approve the streaming of every case.
In keeping with the CCP Central Committee’s Fourth Plenum decision to reform certain aspects of the judicial system, the SPC issued updated regulations requiring the release of court judgments online. The regulations, which took effect on October 1, stipulate that court officials should release judgments, with the exception of those involving state secrets and juvenile suspects, within seven days of their adoption. These reforms, aimed at bringing greater transparency to the judicial system, extended to some of the most sensitive political cases. The Dui Hua Foundation reported that it obtained 117 judgments in cases involving state security as of September 30, up from 80 judgments in all of 2015.
Individuals facing administrative detention do not have the right to seek legal counsel. Criminal defendants were eligible for legal assistance, although the vast majority of criminal defendants went to trial without a lawyer. According to the State Council’s 2016 White Paper on Legal Rights, 4.7 million cases received legal aid from 2012 to 2015.
Lawyers are required to be members of the CCP-controlled All China Lawyers Association, and the Ministry of Justice requires all lawyers to pledge their loyalty to the leadership of the CCP upon issuance or renewal of their license to practice law. The CCP continued to require law firms with three or more party members to form a CCP unit within the firm.
According to Chinese legal experts and statistics reported in domestic media, defense attorneys took part in less than 20 percent of criminal cases; in some provinces it was less than 12 percent. In particular human rights lawyers reported that authorities did not permit them to effectively defend certain clients or threatened them with punishment if they chose to do so. Some lawyers declined to represent defendants in politically sensitive cases, and such defendants frequently found it difficult to find an attorney. When defendants were able to retain counsel in politically sensitive cases, government officials often prevented attorneys from organizing an effective defense. In some instances authorities prevented attorneys selected by defendants from taking the case and appointed a court attorney to the case instead.
Tactics employed by court and government officials included unlawful detentions, disbarment, harassment and physical intimidation, and denial of access to evidence and to clients. In June police beat Guangxi lawyer Wu Liangshu for refusing a body search by court police when he filed a lawsuit with the People’s Court in Nanning. Police suspected he was recording their conversations in court. Wu emerged from the courthouse partially stripped with his clothes torn.
The government suspended or revoked the business licenses or law licenses of those who took on sensitive cases, such as defending prodemocracy dissidents, house-church activists, Falun Gong practitioners, or government critics. Authorities used the annual licensing review process administered by the All China Lawyers Association to withhold or delay the renewal of professional lawyers’ licenses. In April lawyer Pu Zhiqiang was formally disbarred following the three-year suspended prison term he was given in December 2015 for his online comments critical of CCP rule.
In 2015 the NPC’s Standing Committee amended legislation concerning the legal profession. The amendments criminalize attorneys’ actions that “insult, defame, or threaten judicial officers,” “do not heed the court’s admonition,” or “severely disrupt courtroom order.” The changes also criminalize disclosing client or case information to media outlets or using protests, the media, or other means to influence court decisions. Violators face fines and up to three years in prison.
Regulations adopted in 2015 also state that detention center officials should either allow defense attorneys to meet suspects or defendants or explain why the meeting cannot be arranged at that time. The regulations specify that a meeting should be arranged within 48 hours. Procuratorates and courts should allow defense attorneys to access and read case files within three working days. The time and frequency of opportunities available for defense attorneys to read case files shall not be limited, according to the guidelines. In some sensitive cases, lawyers had no pretrial access to their clients, and defendants and lawyers were not allowed to communicate with one another during trials. In contravention of the revised criminal procedure law (see section 1.d.), criminal defendants frequently were not assigned an attorney until a case was brought to court. The law stipulates the spoken and written language of criminal proceedings shall be conducted in the language common to the specific locality, with government interpreters providing language services for defendants not proficient in the local language. Sources noted that trials were predominantly conducted in Mandarin Chinese even in minority areas with interpreters provided for defendants who did not speak the language.
Mechanisms allowing defendants to confront their accusers were inadequate. Only a small percentage of trials reportedly involved witnesses. Judges retained significant discretion over whether live witness testimony was required or even allowed. In most criminal trials, prosecutors read witness statements, which neither the defendants nor their lawyers had an opportunity to rebut through cross-examination. Although the law states that pretrial witness statements cannot serve as the sole basis for conviction, prosecutors relied heavily on such statements. Defense attorneys had no authority to compel witnesses to testify or to mandate discovery, although they could apply for access to government-held evidence relevant to their case.
In 2015 the Ministry of Justice announced a rule that requires assigning lawyers to convicted prisoners on death row who cannot afford one during the review of their sentences. The number of capital offenses in the criminal code was reduced to 46 in 2015. Official figures on executions were classified as a state secret. According to the Dui Hua Foundation, the number of executions fell to 2,400 in 2013, down from a high of 24,000 in 1983. The drop reflected the reform of the capital punishment system initiated in 2007, but the number of executions since 2013 stabilized or even increased. Dui Hua also reported that an increase in the number of Uighur executions likely offset the drop in the number of Han Chinese executed.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
Government officials continued to deny holding any political prisoners, asserting that persons were detained not for their political or religious views but because they violated the law. Authorities, however, continued to imprison citizens for reasons related to politics and religion. Tens of thousands of political prisoners remained incarcerated, most in prisons and some in administrative detention. The government did not grant international humanitarian organizations access to political prisoners.
Political prisoners were granted early release at lower rates than other prisoners. The Dui Hua Foundation estimated that more than 100 prisoners were still serving sentences for counterrevolution and hooliganism, two crimes removed from the criminal code in 1997. Thousands of others were serving sentences for political and religious offenses, including “endangering state security” and “cult” offenses covered under Article 300 of the criminal code, crimes introduced in 1997. The government neither reviewed the cases of those charged before 1997 with counterrevolution and hooliganism nor released persons jailed for nonviolent offenses under repealed provisions.
In August, four men were convicted of the political crime of “subversion of state power” as a result of the 2015 “709” crackdown on public interest legal activism. Zhou Shifeng, the founder of the Beijing Feng Rui Law Firm, was sentenced to seven years for subversion. The media reported that prosecutors stated Zhou had “conspired with foreign governments,” and Zhou reportedly confessed to his crimes in a statement that some observers interpreted as a protest of the ruling. As recently as 2012, Beijing municipal authorities honored Zhou with recognition as a “Beijing Excellent Lawyer” for three straight years. His law firm was known for its legal activism and had represented clients in high-profile cases, including the 2008 melamine milk scandal.
In August authorities sentenced democracy activist and unregistered church leader Hu Shigen to seven years in prison for “subversion of state power.” The media reported he pled guilty, and his was one of the longer sentences among those detained during the “709” crackdown. In the same week, Feng Rui associate Zhai Yanmin and Christian activist Guo Hongguo were also convicted of the same charges, although both received suspended sentences.
In September the Beijing Municipal No. 2 Intermediate Court sentenced human rights lawyer Xia Lin, who previously represented artist Ai Weiwei, to 12 years’ imprisonment on charges of fraud. Supporters said that the charges were baseless and that authorities targeted Xia for his efforts to support human rights activists.
Many political prisoners remained in prison or under other forms of detention at year’s end, including writer Yang Maodong (Guo Feixiong); Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti; anticorruption activist Xu Zhiyong; Wang Bingzhang; activist Liu Xianbin; Zhou Yongjun; online dissident Kong Youping; Roman Catholic bishops Ma Daqin and Su Zhimin; pastor Zhang Shaojie; Falun Gong practitioner Bian Lichao; lawyers or legal associates Li Heping, Wang Quanzhang, Xie Yanyi, Xie Yang, and Li Chunfu; blogger Wu Gan; and many others. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo remained in Jinzhou Prison in Liaoning Province. His wife, Liu Xia, remained under surveillance and faced continued restrictions on her freedom of movement.
Criminal punishments included “deprivation of political rights” for a fixed period after release from prison, during which an individual could be denied rights of free speech, association, and publication. Former prisoners reported that their ability to find employment, travel, obtain residence permits and passports, rent residences, and access social services was severely restricted.
Authorities frequently subjected former political prisoners and their families to surveillance, telephone wiretaps, searches, and other forms of harassment or threats. For example, security personnel followed the family members of detained or imprisoned rights activists to meetings with foreign reporters and diplomats and urged the family members to remain silent about the cases of their relatives. Certain members of the rights community were barred from meeting with visiting dignitaries.
According to the 2015 China Law Yearbook, in 2014 authorities indicted 1,411 individuals for “endangering state security,” an increase of 2 percent from 2013. Based on figures in the report of the Supreme People’s Court to the 2016 plenary session of the National People’s Congress, the Dui Hua Foundation estimated that approximately 500 “endangering state security” trials took place in 2015, down from approximately 1,000 in 2014, a decline believed to be due to the reclassification of crimes. Offenses previously considered as “endangering state security” were, starting in 2015, increasingly dealt with as “terrorism” and “disturbing social order,” including a charge frequently used against activists called “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
Courts deciding civil matters faced the same limitations on judicial independence as criminal courts. The State Compensation Law provides administrative and judicial remedies for plaintiffs whose rights or interests government agencies or officials have infringed. The law also allows compensation for wrongful detention, mental trauma, or physical injuries inflicted by detention center or prison officials. Citizens seldom applied for state compensation because of the high cost of bringing lawsuits, low credibility of courts, and citizens’ lack of awareness of the law. Victims’ claims were difficult to assess because of vague definitions in the law and difficulties in obtaining evidence of damage. Judges were reluctant to accept such cases, and government agencies seldom ruled in favor of plaintiffs.
In some cases authorities pressured plaintiffs to drop their lawsuits. On May 1, Chen Wenying dropped her suit against the Xinhua News Agency and China Central Television (CCTV) for allegedly falsely accusing her son, labor rights activist Zeng Feiyang, of committing fraud. Chen decided to withdraw the lawsuit after she and her family began to receive threats from the government.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The law states that the “freedom and privacy of correspondence of citizens are protected by law,” but authorities often did not respect the privacy of citizens. Although the law requires warrants before officers can search premises, officials frequently ignored this requirement. The Public Security Bureau and prosecutors are authorized to issue search warrants on their own authority without judicial review. Cases of forced entry by police officers continued to be reported.
Authorities monitored telephone calls, text messages, faxes, e-mail, instant messaging, and other digital communications intended to remain private. They also opened and censored domestic and international mail. Security services routinely monitored and entered residences and offices to gain access to computers, telephones, and fax machines. Foreign journalists leaving the country found some of their personal belongings searched. In some cases, when material deemed politically sensitive was uncovered, the journalists had to sign a statement stating they would “voluntarily” leave these documents behind in China.
In September the General Office of the CCP Central Committee and the PRC State Council issued a directive mandating the establishment of a centralized “social credit system” to evaluate the trustworthiness of all individuals and companies in the country. Each person and company is to be assigned a score on the basis of information collected from the internet as well as public records. The directive’s goal is “to construct a credit-monitoring, warning, and punishment system” that operates on the principle that “if trust is broken in one place, restrictions are imposed everywhere.” It details a wide range of privileges that could be denied and punishments that could be imposed for “trust-breaking” conduct, including subjecting individuals and companies to targeted daily monitoring, random inspections, and possible arrest and criminal prosecution. The directive requires that an individual’s score be considered when he or she attempts to establish a social organization, and it singles out lawyers and law firms for restrictions if they engage in “trust-breaking” conduct.
According to media reports, the Ministry of Public Security used tens of millions of surveillance cameras throughout the country to monitor the general public. In 2015 the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau announced it had “covered every corner of the capital with a video surveillance system.” Human rights groups stated that authorities increasingly relied on video and other forms of surveillance to monitor and intimidate political dissidents, Tibetans, and Uighurs. The monitoring and disruption of telephone and internet communications were particularly widespread in the XUAR and Tibetan areas. The Cybersecurity Law passed in November codified the authority of security agencies to cut communication networks across an entire geographic region during “major security incidents,” although they have previously exercised this authority prior to passage of the Cybersecurity Law.
Forced relocation because of urban development continued in some locations. Protests over relocation terms or compensation were common, and some protest leaders were prosecuted. In rural areas infrastructure and commercial development projects resulted in the forced relocation of thousands of persons.
Property-related disputes between citizens and government authorities sometimes turned violent. These disputes frequently stemmed from local officials’ collusion with property developers to pay little or no compensation to displaced residents, combined with a lack of effective government oversight or media scrutiny of local officials’ involvement in property transactions as well as a lack of legal remedies or other dispute resolution mechanisms for displaced residents. The problem persisted despite central government claims it had imposed stronger controls over illegal land seizures and taken steps to standardize compensation. Redevelopment in traditional Uighur neighborhoods in cities throughout the XUAR resulted in the destruction of historically or culturally important areas. Some residents expressed opposition to the lack of proper compensation by the government and the coercive measures used to obtain their agreement to redevelopment.
There were several reports of authorities confiscating traditional pastoral lands from ethnic Mongolian herders for development in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. In August authorities in Shin-Barag Left Banner forcibly evicted ethnic Mongolian herders from their pastoral lands they had grazed for generations under a legal contract with the government. Media and private sources reported that paramilitary officers placed the region under a security lockdown and detained 10 herders, charging one named Huubshalat with “separatism.”