In China, Suspicious Jail Deaths on the Rise

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Inmates work in a sewing workshop at a prison on March 7, 2008 in Chongqing, China

First, there was the case of "hide and seek." Then there was the "nightmare" and the "shower case." As the improbable explanations for deaths of prisoners in China's criminal justice system grows, so have the doubts of legal experts and average citizens alike. The government has pledged open investigations into the deaths, but critics question its will to change the infamously opaque system. Beijing has launched a training program to improve the conditions of the country's jails, but legal experts argue that deeper reforms are needed to stem the violence.

Meanwhile, the number of victims is also growing. In the past three months, 15 cases of suspicious deaths in China's jails have been reported. An official with the with Supreme People's Procuratorate told the state-run Xinhua news service that seven detainees had been beaten to death, three committed suicide, two died in accidents and three cases were under investigation. (See pictures of China's electronic-waste village.)

In February, 24-year-old Li Qiaoming was beaten to death by other inmates in a jail in the southern province of Yunnan. The initial explanation, that he had died during a game of "elude the cat" — a type of "hide and seek" — touched off widespread indignation at the implausibility of the story. To respond to the outcry, provincial officials invited a group of bloggers and journalists to investigate the circumstances of Li's death. The unusual exercise in public participation stumbled when jail officials refused to provide critical pieces of evidence, including surveillance tapes of the detention center. The comments of one provincial propaganda official, Wu Hao, who told the Southern Metropolis Daily that "online public opinion ... is best resolved by the laws of the Internet," further heightened suspicion that the investigation was more focused on controlling public opinion than preventing prison deaths. (See pictures of China on the wild side.)

In early April the government announced a three-month plan to educate police on proper jail procedures. That came after four more deaths were reported, including a 50-year-old man who authorities said died shortly after waking from a nightmare in a jail in Jiangxi province, and a 59-year-old inmate on Hainan Island was killed by other prisoners for refusing to take a shower.

Much of the calls for improved security have focused on the tendency of jailers to rely on "cell bosses," or favored inmates who are selected by prison staff to oversee small groups of prisoners. Several of the deaths have been attributed to beatings at the hands of prisoners acting on orders from other inmates. Because the problems have only been identified at the local level, Chinese media has been given relative freedom to cover abuses, says David Bandurski, a researcher with the China Media Project at Hong Kong University. "These cases of jail deaths are focusing right now on brutal acts carried out by gangs of prisoners," he says. "While the lines of responsibility leading to local police should be clear, we are not talking about acts of brutality carried out directly by police, which would be far more sensitive." And, Bandurski adds, "We are talking also about the very bottom rungs of the police system, so big heads are not rolling."

When the number of reported deaths rose to 15 by late April, authorities declared the new campaign to crack down on "improper management" and "slack supervision" by police and prosecutors would be extended to five months. Some critics argue that the system needs more fundamental reforms before it can begin to reduce prison deaths, and that the ultimate blame lies with police, not rogue inmates. Because many of the victims have been suspects, not convicts, legal experts suspect the abuses are connected with the Chinese legal system's long-standing reliance on confessions to secure criminal convictions.

"Pressure on the local police, especially in small towns, gets so high that arrests are often based on nothing but scarce evidence," says Beijing-based lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan. "Even though they know it's illegal to force a confession by means of torture, the police still resort to it because it's hard for suspects to protect their own rights, and they don't have the right to keep silent."

The lack of guaranteed rights of the accused means detainees are frequent targets of abuse, either in the form of violent interrogations or beatings at the hands of other prisoners, legal experts say. Most suspects are now kept in detention centers run the Public Security Bureau, but moving them to the custody of judicial officials could lessen the likelihood of abuse. "Oral confessions should not be used as evidence any more," Liu says. "And detention centers should be overseen by judicial administrative offices, instead of the police." Until the government enacts those fundamental reforms, then the list of China's jail dead will only grow.

— with reporting by Jessie Jiang

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