Suspects in North Korea are subjected to ritual torture, humiliation and sexual assault by a criminal justice system that considers them “less than an animal”, according to the first-ever report detailing the brutality of the country’s pretrial detention conditions.
The US-based Human Rights Watch [HRW] said people who are arrested and sent to pretrial detention are placed in cramped, unhygienic cells, forced to confess and denied proper food and clothing.
“Prisoners literally waste away from lack of food unless they can bribe guards to have their families send food,” Phil Robertson, HRW’s Asia deputy director, told reporters on Monday.
The report is based on interviews with 15 women and men who were detained in the country, as well as former officials with knowledge of the criminal justice system.
All of the interviewees are North Koreans who fled the country after 2011 – the year its current leader, Kim Jong-un, took power.
“People have very good reason to fear arrest and pretrial detention in North Korea,” Robertson said, adding that only suspects with political connections or the money to bribe police officers, prison officials and prosecutors stand a chance of sparing themselves and their families.
Most can expect to suffer abuses including torture, forced confessions, and cramped, unhygienic conditions, while female detainees face sexual harassment and assault, including rape.
The mistreatment of detainees – beating with a stick or kicking – was “especially harsh” in the early stages of pretrial detention, according to the report, which is the first to offer a detailed account of the regime’s abuse of criminal suspects.
“The regulations say there shouldn’t be any beatings, but we need confessions during the investigation and early stages of the preliminary examination,” a former police officer told HRW. “So you have to hit them in order to get the confession.”
Former detainees said they were forced to sit still on the floor of their cell, kneeling or with their legs crossed, for up to 16 hours a day, with the slightest movement leading to punishments ranging from hitting – using hands, sticks, or leather belts – to forcing them to run in circles around a yard up to 1,000 times.
“If I or others moved, the guards would order me or all the cellmates to extend our hands through the cell bars and would step on them repeatedly with their boots,” said Park Ji-cheol, a former detainee.
Yoon Young-cheol, another former detainee, said suspects were treated like they were “worth less than an animal, and that’s what you end up becoming”.
Yoon, who was a government worker in his 30s when he was arrested by the secret police in 2011, said he was severely beaten before he had even been questioned, and was not told until the following day that he had been accused of spying.
“They just beat me up for 30 minutes, they kicked me with their boots, and punched me with their fists, everywhere on my body,” said Yoon, who was not prosecuted over the spying charges but spent five years at a labour camp for alleged smuggling.
Some of the interviewees recounted “rampant” sexual violence at detention facilities.
Kim Sun-young, a former trader in her 50s who fled North Korea five years ago, said she had been raped by her interrogator at a detention centre, adding that another police officer had sexually assaulted her during an interrogation. Kim said she had been “powerless to resist”.
The report calls on the North Korean government to publicly acknowledge human rights violations and “end endemic torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in detention”. It also urges South Korea, the US and other UN member states to “publicly and privately pressure the North Korean government”.
The UN has accused North Korea of “systematic, widespread and gross” human rights violations, including torture, extrajudicial killings and running a network of gulags for political prisoners.
With Agence France-Presse