Drugged, handcuffed, and locked in an iron chair inside a steel cage – this is how Briton Peter Humphrey says he was forced to confess to crimes in China.
Six uniformed police officers sat at a podium; the lead interrogator “had a clipboard with a sheet of questions on it, and he was telling me how to answer,” Mr Humphrey, 63, told The Telegraph.
Appropriate responses included expressing repentance and apologising to China’s ruling Communist Party. “He would say things like, if you say this, it will help you get lenient treatment.”
Cameras captured Mr Humphrey’s slurred, sedated words; soon, a heavily edited version made to look like an ‘interview’ with a bombshell ‘confession’ was broadcast around the world by Chinese state media.
“They twisted things,” he said. “It was terrifying; all along, I knew I was innocent and that I was being falsely accused. I also knew that I had no way to escape.”
This is China’s legal and judicial system from the inside, and it’s these abusive practices that many in Hong Kong fear being exposed to, bringing an estimated one million people to the streets in recent days to protest plans by city leaders to allow extraditions to the mainland.
Given the outcry, a rushed vote originally expected by the end of this month has been put on hold while lawmakers continue to deliberate, though a majority of pro-Beijing members means passage into law remains very likely.
In China, “the judiciary is expected to perform to the principles and directions of the Communist Party,” said Philip Dykes, chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association.
Trials are characterised by “excessive pre-trial detentions, lack of access to lawyers and family, difficulties in retaining lawyers to act on your behalf in defence, [and] a lot of reliance on paper, rather than witnesses.”
Even lawyers have to toe the line. One-third of Chinese lawyers are Communist Party members; the rest are required to swear loyalty to the country.
Most law firms now also have Party cells, said Sida Liu, an expert in China’s criminal justice system and professor at the University of Toronto.
It’s vastly different to the rule of law and due process in countries like the UK and the US. “If the police need a search warrant, they need to go to the judges and explain why, there is a separation of powers,” said Margaret Lewis, a law professor specialising in China at Seton Hall University in the US.
“In China, it’s more understood as a separation of functions – they have different jobs,” she said. Together, the police, prosecutors and courts form an “iron triangle", because "they’re really all on the same team, they’re working together.”
For nearly two years, Mr Humphrey, who maintains his innocence, disappeared into the Chinese state.
A former journalist, he was running an investigations firm that regularly did due diligence for multinationals in China when he was detained along with his wife, Yu Yingzeng, 65, in July 2013 on charges of “illegally acquiring personal information” of Chinese nationals.
The stunning case, which human rights experts widely consider to have been politically motivated, was linked to a broader Chinese government investigation into British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, one of Mr Humphrey’s clients.
The couple was held for more than a year in pre-trial detention, during which Mr Humphrey says he was interrogated daily, initially without access to a lawyer, and then coerced into confessing on camera – twice. Both were detained in cramped, squalid conditions, fed measly meals in dirty bowls, denied medical treatment, and banned from seeing each other.
Weeks passed before he was allowed to see a legal team, and when he did meet with a lawyer they were separated by iron bars and watched by police.
He also wasn’t allowed to take notes during meetings or bring case documents back to the cell, making it impossible to work on his case independently.
On August 7, 2014, Mr Humphrey was paraded into a courtroom wearing the same black trousers he had been arrested in – now baggy, as he’d lost 12 kilograms by then.
The red and gold insignia of the Chinese Communist Party towered on the wall behind one state judge and two lay judges – dubbed “people’s assessors” – in black gowns at the main podium, flanked on both sides by the prosecutors and defence attorneys. No jurors in the UK sense were in the room. Stacked in a pyramid were boxes full of evidence that the defendants were never allowed to see.
Not a single witness was called to the stand by the prosecution that day. Instead, written statements were presented as evidence. The defence, however, wasn’t allowed to produce witnesses or sworn statements.
Over 14 hours in a room sealed to the press, Mr Humphrey was tried, convicted and sentenced to 30 months in prison. His wife received 24 months. “I was shocked and traumatised,” he said. “It was an extraordinarily obviously stage-managed event.”
Courts in China rarely acquit defendants, partly because defence attorneys are hampered. Those “who dare to represent clients in human rights or other politically sensitive cases could be subject to disbarment, detention or even torture,” said Mr Liu.
State-controlled bar associations even require lawyers to report when they plan a not-guilty defence in some cases. In practice, “the vast majority of Chinese defence lawyers stay away from risky cases,” he said. “Even in routine cases, they often are not willing to mount a rigorous defence against the prosecution.”
“You have to be very savvy about how you present your defence in a way that is not fundamentally challenging the system,” said Ms Lewis. “You can advocate for your client within bounds, and those bounds restrain you from directly taking on the state.”
The United Nations Committee Against Torture has expressed “grave concern” over provisions in China’s criminal procedure laws.
In some situations, it is legal for individuals to be detained for up to six months without access to a lawyer; there are also no requirements for family to be told why, and where that person is being held.
All this “may amount to incommunicado detention in secret places, putting detainees at a high risk of torture or ill-treatment,” found a 2016 UN report, the most recent one to date on the issue.
Last December, authorities detained Canadians Michael Spavor, a businessman, and Michael Kovrig, a consultant and former diplomat, – thought to be in retaliation after Toronto detained a Chinese tech executive on a US extradition request – for months before announcing trumped-up charges of stealing state secrets.
Although Mr Humphrey’s televised ‘confessions’ weren’t cited in court, the authorities remained obsessed with getting him to admit guilt. Even after being convicted, officials dangled the prospect a reduced sentence if he confessed, but he repeatedly refused. “I’m not confessing to a crime I didn’t commit,” he told them.
The couple was eventually released from prison on medical grounds and deported to the UK. But two hours before the plane took off, the authorities tried yet again to extract a confession, and to have them sign a list of ten pledges that would ban them from trying to reverse the verdict, speaking to media, talking to counsel, and maligning China.
“For many of these confessions, the aim seems to be entirely propaganda-oriented, and often used as a tool of foreign policy,” said Peter Dahlin, head of Safeguard Defenders, a human rights group.
Swedish bookseller Gui Minhai, for instance, was kidnapped from Thailand and resurfaced to give ‘confessions’ on television including one where he accused Stockholm of “sensationalising” his case.
Mr Dahlin, detained in 2016 for 23 days, was also forced to ‘confess’ after Chinese authorities threatened to lock up his girlfriend if he failed to cooperate.
“I was simply given a piece of paper with answers and questions, told to memorise it, and later the same day brought into a room near my cell to record it,” he said. A dozen of state security officers were in the room as the lead interrogator directed him, “instructing retakes, telling me to change my phrasing, tone, posture…it went on for hours”.
Last year, Mr Humphrey and Mr Dahlin filed separate complaints to Ofcom, asking the broadcast regulator to investigate whether CGTN, the Chinese state broadcaster that aired their confessions, broke UK regulations; the probe is ongoing. CGTN did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Chinese foreign ministry said Humphrey had admitted guilt and “repented”.
In the end, Mr Humphrey spent 23 months in Chinese jail, worried about how his then-teenage son was doing and terrified his wife, who had kidney disease, would die in a cell.
Though suffering from mental and physical health issues, he remains devoted to seeking redress.
“I am completely destroyed by this incident,” he said, noting his experience was evidence enough that Hong Kong should continue to protest the controversial extradition bill.
“I don’t believe it’s possible for any detainee to receive a fair trial in China, because China has no rule of law. China only wields dictatorial, arbitrary justice, and that is not justice at all.”