In solitary confinement. No access to a lawyer. Without his family knowing his whereabouts, apart from the fact that security agents had taken him away. Subjected, his people denounce, to “torture to extract a confession.” Chinese human rights lawyer Chang Weiping, specialized in cases of discrimination and defense of freedom of expression, spent five months and 16 days, between October 2020 and April this year, in what Chinese legislation describes and authorizes since 2013 as a Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL). It was his second time in this detention process with a name as bland as it was feared among Chinese dissidents: those who have gone through it denounce physical and psychological harassment, mistreatment and torture.
The RSDL has been applied in China to numerous detainees considered especially problematic, because of their notoriety or because they are critical – or perceived as critical – of the system. Entrepreneurs and movie stars such as Fan Bingbing, investigated in her case for tax fraud, have passed through it; dissidents such as Ai Weiwei, Liu Xiaobo or Xu Zhiyong; numerous human rights lawyers such as Chang himself. Fears that elite tennis player Peng Shuai could find herself in this situation after reporting sexual abuse by a senior Chinese official sparked calls from the Women’s Tennis Association and international athletes to clarify her whereabouts. After three weeks missing, Peng appeared this week on a video conference to say she was “safe and sound.”
The human rights defender organization Safeguard Defenders, author of a recent report on this tool, denounces that its use has multiplied since it was codified in 2013 as a result of an amendment to the Criminal Procedure law in China. “Our review shows one of the most far-reaching systems, if not the most, of enforced disappearances in the world,” the organization said in a letter to the United Nations. “The use of RSDL is undoubtedly extensive and systematic,” adds the NGO, whose founder, the Swede Peter Dahlin, himself underwent this procedure in 2015.
This instrument legalizes detention in a secret place for a theoretical maximum of six months, although the term has sometimes been exceeded. It precedes the formal arrest and there is no need for a court to give its approval. According to the Chinese Government, it is essential to defend national security, and the country guarantees respect for the rights of detainees. For human rights defenders, it is a tool against activists that violates international standards and that, far from public scrutiny, opens the door to all kinds of physical and psychological abuse.
The protections provided by law – access to a lawyer, supervision by the Prosecutor’s Office – are in practice discarded. The police can invoke an “exception” if they consider that the detainee represents a risk to national security, explains the Safeguard Defenders report, Locked Up: Inside China’s Secret RSDL Jails (“Locked Up: Inside RSDL’s Secret Prisons in China”), which collects testimonies from detainees and their families and examines Chinese court databases.
The researchers of this organization found that in 2013 this procedure was used against at least 325 people. In 2020, against more than 5,800. In total and as of July 2021, they have located 22,845 cases in which the court verdicts allude to the use of RSDL before the trial. But the actual figures may be higher – between 38,000 and 57,000 people may have passed through this system, calculates the NGO – since the databases do not include cases that are considered to affect national security.
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This instrument, the NGO denounces, “is frequently used outside of its declared purpose, the investigation phase of a criminal case, since a significant proportion are never formally arrested.” By his calculations, a third of the victims he has identified and interviewed were released on bail or without charge. Instead, the RSDL can be used as an intimidation tool and to obtain testimony against others. [sospechosos]”, He points out.
Torture in the ‘tiger chair’
Chang’s case is typical. This young lawyer was arrested for the first time on January 12, 2020, after participating two weeks earlier in a meeting with a group of human rights activists and lawyers in the city of Xiamen. After 10 days in RSDL in a hotel on the outskirts of his hometown (Baoji, central Shaanxi province), he was released. In October of that year, he posted a video on YouTube in which he denounced having suffered torture during his detention: forced to sit all the time in the tiger chair —A metallic device that immobilizes the detainee and ends up causing swelling and severe pain in the buttocks and legs — as a consequence, he had lost sensation in two fingers of his hand. Five days after the video was published, his second arrest and entry into RSDL arrived. In April he was charged with “subversion against the State”, a crime that can cost him life imprisonment.
In September, already under ordinary arrest, he was able to see his lawyer for the first time, 11 months after he was taken away by security officials. According to his defender and explains to MRT his wife, the doctor in microbiology Chen Zijuan, took him to the same hotel in Baoji during his two arrests. A room awaited him there — different each time — with padded surfaces and sealed windows, to prevent him from injuring himself. In the second arrest, the room was tiny: about 3×3 meters, of which half was occupied by the security officials who interrogated him.
Throughout the five months and 16 days of his second stay in RSDL, the wife denounces, the lawyer was subjected to various torture, mistreatment and harassment, including once again the tiger chair. His left hand was also immobilized for two months in a row. He was prevented from sleeping, and provided only the bare minimum of food and water.
“Only when he did what the state security officials wanted did he improve the situation in terms of food, sleep and room temperature. They were provoking a reaction pavloviana, making him obedient like a dog ”, says the microbiologist.
The situation affected his mental state. “In the third month of his RSDL he became paranoid, he believed that all the people in his life were put by the authorities to harm him, including his mother and me. At the time, he was convinced that those suspicions were reasonable. He says that the psychological torture in that room was the most terrible thing for him ”.
Other victims of this procedure report similar experiences. All report, at the very least, psychological abuse – including threats against their families – in endless interrogation sessions. Many, deprivation of sleep or insufficient feeding, obligation to take suspicious drugs or to remain for hours in painful positions.
“During the interrogation sessions, if I didn’t say what they wanted to hear, they punished me. For example, they wouldn’t let me blink. They forced me to sit for a long time in the tiger chair, or standing all day in my cell, even when I was too weak to stand and fell all the time, ”says Yang Zhisun, a human rights activist detained in Beijing at the end of 2015, a testimony collected in the Safeguard Defenders report.
The mistreatment of Chang has had numerous consequences, Chen denounces. Her husband, completely healthy before his arrest, now suffers from blood in the stool, difficulty in movement of the spine and a herniated disc. “Before, he could drive 1,300 kilometers, the distance between Baoji and Shenzhen, my workplace, in one sitting. And now, after being in the hands of security, you have so many problems. They are all a consequence of the long immobilization ”.
Chang is now formally detained in Baoji pending the completion of an investigation into him by the police, which is being extended, in search of sufficient evidence to bring him to trial. “In general, when prosecutors order the investigation to be extended, it is because the evidence is insufficient to bring a person to trial. But in such political cases [como el de Chang] the additional extensions are a way of surreptitiously prolonging his detention, ”adds his wife.
The young lawyer has not been able to see his wife or son since he was taken away more than a year ago. “The letters I wrote to him were read to him by his defender, they did not allow him to be given them. He has also written letters to me, but the detention center did not authorize him to send them to me, ”she says.