U.N. Investigator: Torture Still Widespread in China

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The U.N. special investigator on torture has concluded a fact-finding trip to China that he began last month. Manfred Nowak says torture in Chinese prisons appears to have declined, particularly in urban areas, but it remains widespread.


Today a special investigator is revealing what he found during a rare look inside prisons in China. Manfred Nowak works for the United Nations. He's concluding a two-week tour of China to investigate claims of torture. He says the government interfered with his work, but he still visited detention centers across the country. NPR's Anthony Kuhn is on the line to tell us what the investigator found.

And, Anthony, the basics first here. China outlawed torture in 1996. So has it stopped?

ANTHONY KUHN reporting:

Well, according to Mr. Nowak, it has declined in recent years. There have been less allegations of torture, particularly in urban areas, but it's still very widespread. And he went to China with reports that his office had received about torture of dissidents, of ethnic minorities, of Falun Gong practitioners--it's an exercise group--and he found that he spoke to about 30 prisoners and inmates in prisons, he spoke to academics, and found that these problems were, in fact, still quite widespread, even though China has signed international covenants and treaties on this and has outlawed torture in its own laws.

INSKEEP: What prompted the Chinese to let someone into their prison system for the first time in a decade to look around?

KUHN: Well, Nowak had been trying to get in. I mean, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture has been trying to get in for a decade, and the conditions they wanted, the conditions were that they had to have unfettered access; they had to go unannounced to prisons, speak to whoever they wanted to, and they had to have guarantees that the people who did speak to them would not suffer reprisals because of this. And it took 10 years, but he finally did get those conditions. And it's interesting to note that he's also asked for these conditions at the US facilities at Guantanamo Bay and has not received them. So he hasn't gone there.

INSKEEP: Now although he did get an agreement, he then says that China interfered with him. What did he see? What was he not allowed to see?

KUHN: The most obvious thing was the sense of fear in the people he talked to. There were people who alleged that they had been victims of torture, but when he got to them, they were too afraid to speak to him, or they were so afraid that they said, `I'll speak to you but you can't put it in your report.' They requested complete confidentiality. Now there were other people who may have wanted to speak to him, but were barred by security forces, by members of the Public Security Bureau--or in other words, the police--or state security agents who either told them not to meet with them, physically got in the way of them going there. And he was also under surveillance as he made his way around Beijing and Xinjiang and Tibet out West.

INSKEEP: Given all that, how was he able to conclude that torture had even declined, even if it has not been completely eliminated?

KUHN: Well, he did say that it was very hard for him to reach a complete picture based on his two-week visit, but he did speak to prisoners in certain prisons who said they had been tortured before, but that practice seemed to have declined. He also pointed out some things that the Chinese government is trying to do to reduce torture and to enforce its own laws, including videotaping interrogations and meting out stiffer punishments to police who engage in torture.

INSKEEP: And just very briefly, people argue over the definition of torture. When Nowak says torture, what does he mean?

KUHN: Well, there was some conflict about this because the Chinese do not include in their definition non-corporal punishment, things that don't leave scars and marks. And he says that that should be in there and that the definition needs to come closer to international standards.

INSKEEP: OK. Thanks very much. That's NPR Beijing correspondent Anthony Kuhn.

KUHN: Thanks, Steve.


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