Imagine being locked away for years, yet you’ve never been charged with a crime nor spoken to a lawyer – in China it happens to thousands of people every year.

Imagine that while you are locked up the guards and officials burn you with cigarettes, give you electric shocks, deprive you of sleep and leave you shackled for hours in excruciatingly painful positions.

In China detention without trial and torture – practices which breach international law and go against the Olympic Charter – are widespread.

No charge or trial

In China disciplinary detention – through schemes like ‘re-education through labour’ (RTL), ‘enforced drug rehabilitation’ and ‘custody and education’ – can be imposed for up to four years.

The conditions in these centres are often harsh and detainees are forced to work long hours as part of their ‘re-education’.

Those detained aren’t charged or tried. They have no access to their family. They are not taken before a judge. They have no access to a lawyer and no right of appeal. All of that violates international fair trial standards.

RTL has been around since the mid-1950s. The scheme is used against people who’re considered to have committed an offence, but not something serious enough to be punished under criminal law.

Between crime and error

An official Chinese legal newspaper once said RTL was punishment for actions falling between crime and error. There are cases where people have been acquitted by a court, then reportedly sent immediately to an RTL centre.

The scheme’s often used against petty criminals, government critics, peaceful protestors, academics who support democracy and followers of banned religious groups.

For years Chinese authorities have talked about reforming RTL, but nothing has happened.

Beijing’s authorities are using the Olympics as an excuse to extend the use of these detention schemes as a way to control offending behaviour and to ‘clean up’ the city's image. Those detained as part of the ‘clean-up’ are drug users, and also those accused of vagrancy, begging, unlawful advertising or having unlicenced taxis.

From jail cells to courtrooms

We believe that detainees in China are frequently at risk of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment at some stage of their journey through the justice system.

Torture is known to have taken place in every type of Chinese detention facility, including police stations, prisons, ‘re-education centres’ and even courtrooms.

Numerous accounts of torture in China include detainees being suspended from doors or ceilings by handcuffs which are locked behind their back, or else being rendered immobile with chains or ropes. While the person is in this prone and defenceless position, officials attack them with truncheons, electric shock batons and other weapons.

People detained because of their religious beliefs, political views or human rights activities – and who refuse to recant – are at a much greater risk of ill-treatment and torture.

The use of these practices may have dropped off in some urban areas recently, but it’s still widespread. The practice thrives because detainees have restricted access to the outside world and there are ineffective systems for complaint and investigation.

Extra info

Have a look at our report Abolishing "Re-education through Labour" and other forms of punitive administrative detention.

Among those in RTL centres right now is Chinese journalist Bu Dongwei who was sent away for two-and-a-half years in connection with his Falun Gong beliefs.