By Chris Buckley
BEIJING (Reuters) - Lawyer Li Zhuang remembers the snap as police buckled him into a "tiger seat", an instrument for sleep deprivation that he said was a staple in the crusade against organized crime that won fame for China's now fallen leadership aspirant Bo Xilai.
Li has been the most outspoken lawyer to challenge Bo's crackdown on crime syndicates, an offensive that boosted Bo's nationwide popularity and hopes for climbing from his base in Chongqing, a huge city in the southwest, to the centre of power when China's new leadership is chosen later this year.
That campaign could now figure in the aftershocks to Bo's abrupt downfall this month, as allegations increasingly emerge of widespread torture in Chongqing, adding to accusations that Bo became a law unto himself.
"I never expected that there would be such barbarity, such flouting of the law, such reckless, brazen violation of the law," Li said of Bo's anti-crime campaign.
Li is also a critic of Bo's long-time police chief Wang Lijun. Wang triggered both his own and Bo's downfall by fleeing to a U.S. consulate on February 6 where he hid for 24 hours until Chinese officials coaxed him out. The reasons for Wang's flight to the consulate remain unclear.
The 50-year-old Li was convicted and jailed in early 2010 after vigorously defending a client on trial in Chongqing's anti-gang campaign. Li ended up being charged with persuading his client falsely to claim torture.
"From what I've heard, the longest that someone was held and not allowed to move was 10 days. I sat in one for three days and three nights," Li recalled of his time in a "tiger seat," after he was arrested by Chongqing police.
The chair is screwed to the floor, with belt and braces to immobilize suspects bolt upright so police can keep them awake, creating deep exhaustion, Li said.
"All those who were arrested were deprived of sleep for the first few days. In torture parlance, it's called a 'rolling war', so you're deprived of sleep and utterly exhausted," he told Reuters in a sometimes tearful interview in Beijing.
"It was interrogation across dozens of hours on end," he added, noting that he was allowed toilet breaks.
SUSPENDED FROM THE CEILING
He quotes Chongqing client, Gong Gangmo, as saying that while he was in detention he was suspended by handcuffs from the ceiling, his feet barely touching the table to support him.
"He was almost hanging (by his hands) with his toes touching the table days and nights on end," Li recounted of his client. Gong was left to defecate on himself.
The issue has taken on international repercussions, with Britain this week saying it had asked China to investigate the death late last year in Chongqing of a British man, Neil Heywood. There have been unconfirmed reports that Heywood had dealings with the Bo family and his death might be linked to Bo's fall.
"These things (abuses) must be exposed, otherwise how can such a large country get by without the rule of law? There are too many things like this, far too many dark stories," he said of the mounting claims of injustice in Bo's crusade.
He said he did not know how much direct knowledge Bo had of the alleged abuses but considered Bo and Wang to be ultimately culpable.
"Secretary Bo Xilai has told the media that he is responsible for everything that happens in Chongqing; they were his own words," said Li, citing Bo's news conference earlier this month, days before his dismissal was announced.
"As for what responsibility Wang Lijun bears, as the top or most senior public security officer, he shoulders responsibility that cannot be shirked," Li added. "After all, you are the number one public security official (in Chongqing)."
QUANDARY OVER "CHONGQING MODEL"
Li typifies a coalescing counter-offensive against Bo's campaign that came with the slogan "to attack black and wipe out evil" and which puts the government in a quandary over how far to go in attacking the "Chongqing model" that Bo championed.
Tall, telegenic and sporting sharp business suits in a party of subdued conformists, Bo arrived in Chongqing in 2007 and recast it as a bold, egalitarian alternative model of growth for China. His campaign against crime was also crucial in making him the country's most prominent provincial-level leader.
Human rights groups say that torture by police to extract confessions is common across China, and many Chinese have little time for talk of defendants' rights.
In Chongqing, many welcomed the safer streets Bo brought.
But with his political downfall, lawyers and other targets of his crusade are now demanding redress.
"I must appeal, because my case was clearly an unjust and wrong case in the anti-organized crime campaign," Li said of his own controversial jailing. "I certainly won't accept it. I will keep appealing to the end."
The son of a Chinese revolutionary hero, Bo was sacked as Communist Party secretary for Chongqing this month, and since then he has been kept from the public eye, giving him no chance to answer accusations.
Bo was unavailable to comment for this article. The Chongqing government had no immediate comment.
Before his dismissal, Bo defended his anti-gang crusade.
"I understand the situation and can say responsibly that there was no extraction of confessions through torture," he told a news conference during China's national parliament on March 9.
UNDERCURRENT OF CRITICISM
Bo launched the anti-crime drive in 2009. Chongqing police held thousands of suspects, putting on trial dozens of business men and women and officials accused of extortion, graft and running syndicates for protection rackets and prostitution.
But amid the blaze of admiring publicity for Bo and his then police chief Wang, who later fled to the consulate, was an undercurrent of criticism from lawyers and rights advocates who said the campaign trampled rudimentary legal safeguards.
Li said that especially since their downfall, he has received frequent calls - as many as 10 a day - from Chongqing residents alleging torture and other abuses.
"At the time, the ordinary people had grievances and anger that they didn't dare speak up about, didn't dare appeal over. But now the situation is different," he said.
"Many Chongqing people who were wrongly arrested, wrongly attacked or hurt, cry when they call me."
Li stressed that he was not judging the merits of each case or assuming everyone caught was innocent.
"But we can't sacrifice the rule of law to the enforcement of law, we can't resort to barbaric means to enforce the law," he said.
Following his arrest in December 2009, Li was promptly convicted and jailed for two and a half years, bringing a torrent of accusations that Chongqing authorities had framed him.
After Li signed a confession appearing to admit guilt, his sentenced was reduced by a year. But Li says, with some glee, his confession contained a hidden pattern of words saying that he was "forced to confess to gain a suspended sentence, and will insist on appealing."
(Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Don Durfee and Jonathan Thatcher)