Developments in the human rights situation in China over the past few months represent a major set back for human rights and the "rule of law" in China, and a new step backwards since the deterioration in human rights which started in late 1998.
In 2001, the Chinese authorities have continued to show willingness to adhere on a pro forma level to the international human rights regime - notably by ratifying the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, in February 2001. At the same time, however, they have pursued domestic policies resulting in serious human rights violations on a large scale.
In particular, the authorities have launched a new "strike hard" campaign against crime which led within a few weeks to a record number of executions, many of them believed to have been carried out after summary trials. They have stepped up the crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual movement, reportedly sanctioning for the first time the widespread use of violence against its members.
This briefing summarises Amnesty International's concerns about the major developments outlined above. Information about other human rights issues in China is available in other Amnesty International's documents and reports, including "Torture: A growing scourge in China - Time for action" (AI Index: ASA 17/004/2001, 12 February 2001) and "Comments on China's Report to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination" (an Amnesty International Briefing, July 2001).
The campaign against Falun Gong - allegations of state sanctioned violence:
Over the past few months, Falun Gong sources in China and abroad have alleged that violence against Falun Gong practitioners detained all over China is now systematic and officially sanctioned. They describe this as a new pattern and claim that a special government task force set up in Beijing to lead the campaign against Falun Gong, the "610 office", has issued unwritten instructions allowing police and other officials to go beyond legal constraints in this campaign, discharging them of legal responsibility if a Falun Gong practitioner dies in detention due to beatings. According to these sources, of over 250 practitioners reported to have died in custody since Falun Gong was banned in July 1999, about half have died this year and many of the deaths which are due to ill-treatment are officially reported as suicides.
Allegations that violence against Falun Gong practitioners is now officially sanctioned have also been reported in August 2001 in a detailed article in the Washington Post , which cites unidentified government sources. (1) According to the article, the central authorities devised a new approach to eradicate the group in February this year, after eighteen months of mitigated success due to uneven or reluctant enforcement of the campaign by local officials. The new approach was reportedly based on three elements designed to produce results, the first being the sanction by the central leadership of the widespread use of violence against practitioners who refuse to renounce their beliefs. The article cited the sources as saying there was previously no systematic campaign of violence to break Falun Gong, and that practitioners had previously suffered only the "normal amount" of police brutality, in the same way as other detainees. The two other elements in the new approach consisted in the systematic setting up of compulsory "study sessions" to force all known practitioners to abandon Falun Gong and denounce it as a [Chinese Government's slanderous word], and a more effective propaganda campaign to turn public opinion against Falun Gong. The propaganda campaign capitalised on an incident on 23 January 2001 when five alleged practitioners, including a 12 year-old girl and her mother, set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square. The state media repeatedly broadcast shocking images of the burning body of the girl and material aimed at discrediting the group after the incident, reportedly changing public views of the group.
Amnesty International is gravely concerned by the allegations of state sanctioned violence against Falun Gong practitioners. The organisation's concerns about the government's campaign against the group include the arbitrary detention of thousands of practitioners - whether in "study classes", regular detention centres or labour camps - unfair trials, and numerous allegations of torture of detained practitioners. These concerns have been documented in a number of reports published by Amnesty International. In a report published in February 2001, (2) the organisation cited allegations made in cases of deaths in custody, most of them reportedly due to torture and ill-treatment. Active attempts by officials to cover up or destroy evidence were alleged in a large number of these cases. This included reports of hasty cremation of the victims before relatives could see the bodies or before autopsies could be performed, and the detention of people who sought to publicise information about the death in custody of relatives or friends. In the face of a body of credible evidence, official responses in many of these cases, rejecting outright all allegations of torture and ill-treatment, were both unconvincing and inadequate.
These concerns still stand and have been reinforced by the growing body of testimonies of torture by Falun Gong practitioners held in various places of detention or ''study'' centres, as well as the growing number of reports of deaths in custody over the past few months. By mid-January 2001, at least 120 deaths in custody had been reported since the ban on Falun Gong in July 1999. This number has now reportedly more than doubled in just over six months. Allegations of ill-treatment and official cover-up through hasty cremations have been made in these cases too. Official sources have attributed many of the recent deaths in custody to suicide but have provided no detail and, unlike the widely publicised self-immolations in Tiananmen Square in January this year, there have been no media reports about these alleged suicides.
Amnesty International calls on the Chinese government to stop all violence against Falun Gong practitioners and provide convincing evidence that all allegations of torture of detained practitioners are being investigated, in line with Chinese law. It also calls on the government to release all practitioners arbitrarily detained in "study classes" and other places of detention.
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