North Korea has been imposing dangerous and inhumane policies in its pretrial detention system that “lacks any semblance of due process,” said a new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The US-based human rights watchdog released on Oct. 19 a report titled ‘Worth Less Than an Animal’: Abuses and Due Process Violations in Pretrial Detention in North Korea.
Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, described North Korea’s pretrial detention and investigation system as “arbitrary, violent, cruel, and degrading.”
“North Koreans say they live in constant fear of being caught in a system where official procedures are usually irrelevant, guilt is presumed, and the only way out is through bribes and connections,” he said.
The 88-page report focused on the country’s treatment of detainees, who are considered to be “worth less than an animal,” in its pretrial detention facilities.
The report, which is based on research and accounts of at least 22 former detainees and eight former government officials, claimed that “mistreatment in custody is a standard feature” of the country’s criminal justice system.
Former detainees claimed that they suffered “physical violence, including being punched by officers, hit with a thick wooden stick or a thin rod, or kicked with boots.”
Inmates, who are not subjected to interrogations or who are not at work, “are forced to sit or kneel the entire day in a fixed posture in often severely overcrowded cells.”
“They are not allowed to speak, move, or look around without permission. Failure to obey these rules is punished with beatings, food ration cuts, or forced physical exercise,” the report read.
Interviewees said that inmates are told to keep their heads down and their eyes directed to the floor because the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea considers detainees “to be inferior human beings, and therefore unworthy of direct eye contact with law enforcement officers.”
Former female detainees told HRW that they “experienced or observed sexual violence, including rape” in detention and interrogation facilities.
In her testimony, former detainee Lim Ok Kyung said she was beaten and abused after her arrest in 2014 for smuggling goods from China.
“Some guards who passed by would hit me with their hands or kick me with their boots…. For five days, they forced me to stay standing and didn’t let me sleep,” she said.
Lim was released after ten days when her husband, who was a mid-level party member, was able to find connections and secure a release order.
Another former detainee, Kim Sun Young, claimed she had been raped by her interrogator.
Other female interviewees told HRW that they were deprived of basic hygiene amenities, including menstrual supplies.
“The regulations say there shouldn’t be any beatings, but we need confessions during the investigation and early stages of the preliminary examination,” said a former police officer involved in the detention process.
He said that authorities consider the detention and interrogation facility as a venue for “re-education,” and the experience must be “very hard” and “humiliating” for detainees.
“So, they become like machines and make the clear decision never to commit crimes again,” he said.
The report described North Korea with a “weak legal and institutional framework.” It also highlighted “corruption” within the country’s judicial and law enforcement system.
HRW urged North Korea to “bring the system out of the dark ages by asking for international assistance to create a professional police force and investigative system.”
Adams said pretrial detention and investigation facilities must “rely on evidence instead of torture to solve crimes.”
HRW encouraged North Korean authorities to “undertake legal, constitutional, and institutional reforms to establish an independent and impartial judiciary.”
“Introduce genuine checks and balances on the powers of the police, security services, government, the Workers’ Party of Korea, and the Supreme Leader,” the report said.
The report also recommended a “reform” on the country’s legal system “to ensure due process and fair trials that meet international standards.”
HRW said North Korea must presume innocence during investigations and at trials of the accused.
It also urged the country to “take immediate steps to improve abysmal conditions of detention and imprisonment and bring them up to basic standards of hygiene, health care, nutrition, clean water, clothing, floor space, light, and heat.”
“End endemic torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment in detention and prison, including sexual violence, hard labor, being forced to sit immobilized for long periods, and other mistreatment,” the report read.
HRW called on the North Korean government to allow the international community, including the United Nations to visit its prisons and detention facilities.
Watch this video about the HRW report: