Lawyer Li Zhuang (李莊) 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 former party leader of Chongqing Bo Xilai (薄熙來).
Li has been the most out-spoken lawyer to challenge Bo’s crackdown on crime syndicates, an offensive that boosted Bo’s nationwide popularity and his hopes of using his base in Chongqing, a huge city in the southwest, to gain a promotion to the center of power when China’s new leadership is chosen later this year.
That campaign could now figure in the aftershocks of 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 (王立軍). Wang triggered both his own and Bo’s downfall by fleeing to a US consulate on Feb. 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 to falsely claim he was tortured by the police.
“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 belts 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 are deprived of sleep and utterly exhausted,” he said in a sometimes tearful interview in Beijing.
“It was interrogation across dozens of hours on end,” he said, adding that he was allowed toilet breaks.
He quotes Chongqing client Gong Gangmo (龔剛模) 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,” Li 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 Chong-qing; they were his own words,” said Li, citing Bo’s news conference earlier this month, days before his dismissal was announced.