Cheng Lei: detained Australian at risk of torture in China, observers say

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Australian journalist Cheng Lei is at risk of torture by Chinese authorities, human rights observers have said.

On Monday the Australian government revealed Chinese authorities had detained Cheng, a Chinese-born Australian citizen and business news anchor for CGTN, China’s English-language state media channel. The government has not been told why she has been detained, and amid deteriorating relations China’s foreign minister has not returned calls from Australian representatives for months.

Cheng was taken into “residential surveillance at a designated location” (RSDL), a form of detention that has been classified by United Nations human rights experts as a type of enforced disappearance.

The coercive custody allows the ministry of public security and the ministry of state security to circumvent ordinary criminal law processes and hold subjects in undisclosed locations without formal arrest, charge, trial, or access to a lawyer, for up to six months.

RSDLs can not use existing places of detention, so instead special purpose facilities have been constructed, sometimes repurposed guesthouses and motels are used. Inside, detainees are held in suicide-proofed rooms in effective solitary confinement.

Elaine Pearson, head of Human Rights Watch Australia, said on Tuesday RSDL was “not house arrest”, and detainees were “at risk of ill-treatment and even torture”.

Peter Dahlin, director of human rights NGO Safeguard Defenders, told the Guardian the average length of detention in RSDL was about 30 days but for high profile targets – like Cheng – it rose to about 120 days.

“The UN has classified solitary confinement – if it is during investigation stage and lasting more than two weeks – to be torture,” Dahlin said.

“Once [Cheng] breaks the 15 day [mark] she’ll technically be a torture victim. She’s not at risk of being tortured, she is technically being tortured.”

This called into question China’s obligations as a signatory to the international convention against torture, he said.

Dahlin, who was held for 23 days in 2016 and subjected to sleep deprivation, said RSDL was introduced to China’s criminal justice system in 2013, purportedly to provide for detainees with special needs or for authorities who needed special powers, but it has been almost entirely for authorities’ gain.

“When I was switched into RSDL after 24 hours in detention, I was told I have the right to ask for a lawyer but not the right to actually have one, and that I have the right to ask to speak to my family, but not the right to actually speak to them,” Dahlin said. “This is the norm not the exception.”

According to a landmark study released this week by Safeguard Defenders, which analysed Supreme Court data, about 30,000 people have been taken into RSDL between 2013 and 2019, and its use is increasing.

It remains unknown why Cheng has been targeted by authorities. All references to her have been scrubbed from CGTN’s online presence, and on Tuesday the Chinese foreign ministry declined to provide details on the case. Her Facebook posts, some which are critical of the Chinese government, remain online.

The International Federation of Journalist said Cheng’s detention was “without cause or reason [and] is deeply concerning, particularly if it means she has no access to legal support or communication with her family in Australia”.

“We urge for immediate clarification on the circumstances surrounding her detention and call for every effort to resolve the matter promptly to secure her release.”

Pete Humphrey, a China academic and former foreign correspondent who was arbitrarily detained in China in 2013-2014, said there was no precedent for Cheng’s case.

“She is a Chinese journalist with Australian citizenship. This is going to make things very complicated. Beijing will handle her roughly, as though she is one of their own, they will therefore treat her harshly. But it will also play up the Australian connection at a time when diplomatic relations are tense and it wants to bully Australia.”

The Australian government was able to see Cheng via videolink last week, foreign minister Marise Payne said on Tuesday. Payne – whose department historically favours private diplomatic entreaties in such cases – provided few details or criticisms, saying only the Cheng was “as well as can be expected”.