By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - A United Nations rights watchdog called on China on Wednesday to halt torture of detainees that it said remains widespread in police stations and prisons and to close its secret illegal "black jails".
The U.N. Committee against Torture voiced deep concern about the deaths in custody of several high-profile political prisoners and at China's crackdown on lawyers and activists.
At least 25 of 200 lawyers rounded up since July remain in detention, it said, calling for China to "stop sanctioning lawyers".
The 10 independent experts asked Beijing to report back in one year on progress in complying with an international treaty banning torture. Their recommendations came after examining China's record at a two-day hearing, the first review since 2008.
"The Committee remains seriously concerned over consistent reports indicating that the practice of torture and ill-treatment is still deeply entrenched in the criminal justice system, which overly relies on confessions as the basis for convictions," the Committee said.
In Beijing, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said she had not seen the report. "But in recent years China has been promoting the rule of law and has made great efforts in all regards including on opposing torture," she told a daily news briefing ahead of the report's release.
The U.N. watchdog said it had numerous credible reports that "document in detail cases of torture, deaths in custody, arbitrary detention and disappearances of Tibetans".
"We can also say that some of the problem pointed out in 2008 are still problems," panel member Jens Modvig told a news briefing. "China has not provided data about complaints over torture, about investigations, about possible convictions for torture and data on death in custody and the like."
Rights activists, lawyers, petitioners, political dissidents and members of religious or ethnic minorities "continue to be charged, or threatened to be charged, with broadly-defined offences as a form of intimidation", the committee said, citing charges of endangering national security or terrorism.
"When you are accused of a crime of national security you do not have the right to fundamental safeguards, namely access to a lawyer. This is for an indefinite time, you will have access to a lawyer when the prosecution determines the reason for the detention have disappeared," chairman Claudio Grossman told Reuters.
"There is no right to judicial appeal. This is a serious concern of the committee."
At the review, China denied that it held political prisoners and said its government prohibited use of torture, evoking derision from exiled dissidents.
The U.N. experts said most cases of alleged torture and ill-treatment took place during pre-trial and extra-legal detention and involved public security officers.
"There are also serious issues when it comes to incommunicado and secret detention," said expert George Tugushi. "We have received numerous allegations that this is also practiced in the country, that sometimes people are kept in secret detention places and their relatives are unaware of their whereabouts."
INTERROGATION CHAIRS, DEATHS IN CUSTODY
Detainees should have access to a lawyer from the very start of custody and should be brought before a judge within 48 hours.
Audio-visual recordings of interrogations should be mandatory and coerced confessions inadmissible, the committee said. An independent, confidential complaints mechanism for torture victims should be established.
Voicing concern at deaths in custody and the alleged lack of prompt medical care, it cited the cases of the activist Cao Shunli and Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, a prominent Tibetan monk. She died in jail last year and he in July 2015.
The U.N. experts decried China's use of an interrogation chair with restraints.
"A sign of this problem of widespread torture is the use of so-called interrogation chairs which are chairs that are fixed to the ground and where the persons interrogated are restrained (by their) arms," Modvig said. "There are no time limits as to how long such an interrogation could take place, which in itself ... could easily amount to torture."
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Toby Chopra)