Forced Confessions Draw Fresh Scrutiny

In 2003, Zhang Gaoping and his nephew Zhang Hui confessed to the and of Wang Dong, a 17-year-old girl the two had picked up while passing through Zhejiang province. Both were incarcerated until late last month, when they were acquitted based on evidence that their confessions were forced. People’s Daily reports:

[…]The pair were acquitted by the Zhejiang Provincial High People’s Court on March 26. The court said it is possible that police used illegal methods to accumulate evidence when investigating the case 10 years ago.

The court reversed its 2004 ruling that included a death sentence with a two-year reprieve for Zhang Hui and a 15-year prison term for his uncle, Zhang Gaoping, for raping and murdering a woman in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, as there was new evidence showing the possibility of another suspect. Evidence presented during the previous trial was not enough to support the conviction.

[…]Both men claimed they were forced into confess[ion] after a long interrogation.

In an interview with China Central Television, Zhang Gaoping said the interrogation lasted for seven consecutive days with no sleep and little food, and added that he was forced to stay in a squatting posture for a long period of time.

A Xinhua report providing details of the night the two freighters picked up Wang Dong also notes that the two were forced into confession:

On the night of May 18, 2003, Zhang Gaoping and his nephew Zhang Hui gave 17-year-old Wang Dong a free ride when they were transporting freight to Shanghai.

They dropped the girl off in the city of Hangzhou in east China’s Zhejiang Province at 1:50 a.m. the next morning and continued on their way to Shanghai.

Wang’s naked body was discovered later that day. The two men became the principal suspects in her death and were detained on May 23, as they were the last people to have seen Wang alive. However, police could not find any physical evidence to charge Zhang and his nephew with the crime.

[…]Zhang Gaoping said they were forced to confess to the crime under great pressure and from police and their fellow inmates.

Using to implicate accused criminals dates back to China’s imperial past, but recent measures have been made to curb the practice –  in 2010 the Supreme People’s Court passed regulations banning torture-drawn confessions. In 2011, a Hong Kong University study found a 95 percent confession rate in China, hinting that torture was still widely-used in extracting confessions. In late 2012 the ban on forced confessions was reiterated after the Criminal Procedure Law was amended to enhance suspects’ rights in non-political cases. In an in-depth report detailing the Zhangs sentencing, interrogation, road to appeal, and release, the Washington Post notes the rare government acceptance of fault in this case – as expressed in the official media acknowledgment of forced confession and also the apologetic behavior of justice officials as the men were released – and how it can be seen as a product of political infighting:

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this case is coming out now,” said Nicholas Bequelin, senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It’s part of an effort by the pro-legal reforms faction to overcome the resistance of the security apparatus.”

[…]Justice officials who were in court when the men were released apologized and bowed to them. Later, through a court spokesman, officials acknowledged to reporters that their conviction appears to have been based on confessions that were coerced with violence and threats.

[…]On the day he was released, standing before the justice system that wronged him, Zhang said: “Today you are judges and prosecutors, but your descendants won’t necessarily be the same. If there is no change in institutions and laws, your descendants could be wrongfully accused and teeter on the brink of the death penalty like us. Please remember that.”

For more on legal reform and forced confession, see prior CDT coverage.