From combined dispatches
BEIJING — A United Nations rights investigator said yesterday that torture was still widespread in China and accused authorities of trying to obstruct his work on a historic fact-finding mission.
“Torture is on the decline, but it is still widespread,” Manfred Nowak, the U.N. Human Rights Commission’s special rapporteur on torture, told reporters at the end of his two-week trip.
“There is much that still needs to be done; there is a need for many more structural reforms,” said Mr. Nowak, a law professor in Vienna, Austria.
Torture methods he cited include the use of electric-shock batons, cigarette burns, submersion in pits of water or sewage and exposure to conditions of extreme heat or cold.
In Tibet, Mr. Nowak was told that sleep deprivation was frequently used, in one case for 17 days.
The victims were usually “monks and nuns who still uphold their allegiance and support of the Dalai Lama and who are seen as endangering national security because they are often seen as separatists,” he said.
Mr. Nowak said Chinese authorities had closely monitored and obstructed his work, which included interviews conducted in Beijing as well as in the restive regions of Tibet and Xinjiang.
“There was frequent surveillance of my interviews that I had outside prison with victims’ family members,” Mr. Nowak said.
He and his team were not allowed to bring photographic and electronic equipment into the prisons and their visits to correctional facilities were limited to the working hours of the staff.
“As the authorities were generally announced an hour in advance, the visits could not be considered to have been strictly ‘unannounced,’ ” said a press release distributed at the end of Mr. Nowak’s visit.
Mr. Nowak told reporters he also had received reports that victims’ family members were prevented from meeting him — as they were either put under house arrest, stopped physically from seeing him or simply intimidated.
While interviewing prisoners, Mr. Nowak said he observed “a palpable level of fear and self-censorship,” he said.
“Unfortunately, a number of people did not wish to talk to me, which I regretted,” he said.
However, the U.N. envoy said he was allowed to speak to any detainee he wished to meet. “Not one single request was actually refused by the prison authorities,” he said.
During a two-week visit, Mr. Nowak met 30 detainees held in Beijing, Tibet and the Muslim-majority region of Xinjiang.
Beijing-based civil rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng said earlier that he was followed and monitored closely by security agents when he met with U.N. rights officials who came to China with Mr. Nowak.
At the beginning of his trip last month, Mr. Nowak praised China’s leaders for acknowledging the widespread abuse of prisoners in the nation’s jails, saying there was a growing awareness that improvement was needed.
Mr. Nowak came to China after receiving government assurances it would cooperate with him and allow him unannounced visits to prisons and private talks with prisoners.
In the early 1990s a U.N. special rapporteur on arbitrary detention visited prisons in Tibet, but prisoners were punished for what they told the investigator, rights group have said.
Beijing said Mr. Nowak’s visit shows the government’s commitment to banning torture.
“Through this visit, we can demonstrate our sincerity,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said Thursday, the day before Mr. Nowak’s press conference. “It is conducive to promoting understanding.”