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LILING, China – The local Chinese official remembers all too clearly the panic he felt in Room 109. He had refused again and again to confess to bribery he says he didn't commit, and his four Communist Party interrogators were forcing his legs farther apart than they could go.
Zhou Wangyan begged them to stop. But the men taunted him and kept pushing.
Then, with a loud "ka-cha," his left thigh bone snapped. The sickening crunch reverberated in his mind, nearly drowning out his howls of pain and the frantic pounding of his heart.
"My leg is broken," Zhou told the interrogators. According to Zhou, they ignored his pleas.
Zhou, land bureau director for the city of Liling, was confined in the party's secret detention system at a compound in central Hunan, touted as a model center for anti-corruption efforts. Nobody on the outside could help him, because nobody knew where he was.
In a rare act of public defiance, Zhou and three other party members in Hunan described to The Associated Press the months of abuse they endured less than two years ago, in separate cases, while in detention. Zhou said he was deprived of sleep and food, nearly drowned, whipped with wires and forced to eat excrement. The others reported being turned into human punching bags, strung up by the wrists from high windows, or dragged along the floor, face down, by their feet.
All said they talked to the AP despite the risk of retaliation because they were victims of political vendettas and wanted to expose what had happened. Party representatives contacted by the AP denied the abuses had taken place.
The demands of Zhou and the others reflect a surging tide of expectations in today's China, where an increasingly prosperous, better-educated and more Internet-savvy public is pressuring the party to live by its promises of a fairer society. The same expectations have fuelled anger against rampant graft, and the party has responded with China's biggest anti-corruption campaign in years. Since President Xi Jinping took power in late 2012, the campaign has felled dozens of mid-to-high-level officials and punished thousands of cadres.
However, the party's methods for extracting confessions put its 85 million members and their close associates at risk of abuse through its internal investigation system, which is separate from state justice. While police are legally required to notify the relatives of detained suspects, the party is under no such obligation. And since its powers are unchecked by police, prosecutors and courts, the party can abuse its own members in its own secret jails with impunity, even though torture is banned by its regulations.
It's impossible to tell how rare or common such abuse is. The opaqueness of the system, known as "shuanggui," (SHWANG'-gway) also makes it impossible to tell whether corruption investigations are legitimate, or simply efforts by party members to target rivals or settle scores.
Zhou's account is supported by medical records, statements from prosecutors, reports from party discipline organs and the land bureau, and a statement from police saying they could not investigate the abuse. The AP also corroborated information through interviews with family and friends, four of whom say they were detained and coerced to falsely accuse Zhou of taking bribes, and in two cases abused also.
Some details of his story could not be independently verified. Video surveillance footage from his interrogations has not been released, and a Liling party official named Yi Dingfeng said provincial-level authorities were investigating the case. Local anti-graft officials on a Hunan online forum in February last year denied Zhou was tortured, saying he injured himself by slipping in the bathroom.
Eighteen months after his leg broke, Zhou still limps on crutches.
"My time in shuanggui was tragic and brutal. It was a living hell," he says. "Those 184 days and five hours were not a life lived by a human. It was worse than being a pig or a dog."
The three men from the party's disciplinary arm came for Zhou in his office on a hot summer morning in July 2012.
Zhou, then 47, made two brief calls — one to tell the city's mayor that his deputy would be in charge, and the other to his wife.
"Believe me," he told her, "I'm innocent. The organization is just taking me away to ask me some questions, I'll be back soon."
Zhou trusted the party, as a career official who had slowly climbed out of poverty and up its ranks. In 2007, he was appointed to head the land resources bureau in Liling, a city of about 1 million famous for its porcelain and fireworks. Zhou blames his detention on a local party boss who bore him a grudge, later removed by the party in an investigation without reasons given.
Of course, abuse in detention goes far beyond the party in China, where police use similar methods with anyone from mafia suspects to dissidents. Despite hopes that Xi's administration would be less authoritarian than those before, critics believe he is clamping down even more strongly, with increased detentions of people who push for political change, protest censorship and demand wealth disclosure from officials.
However, little is known or reported, at home or abroad, about mistreatment within the party's own obscure detention system, which runs up against Chinese laws that say only prosecutors and police have the right to arrest or detain people.
The party defines "shuanggui" as an order to its officials to appear at a designated time and place to account for their actions. Experts who study corruption statistics estimate at least several thousand people are secretly detained every year for weeks or months under this system.
Party anti-corruption experts acknowledge that the practice is legally problematic but say it's indispensable in fighting corruption. About 90 percent of major corruption cases involving party members in recent years were cracked through the use of "shuanggui," a party official said last month.
Anti-graft authorities investigated 173,000 cases of corruption among members last year, officials say, and at least three people died. In an unusual public prosecution, six party cadres were also sentenced to prison for inflicting harm that led to the death of Yu Qiyi, a state engineer in eastern Wenzhou.
Aside from Zhou, three others told the AP they too had suffered in detention in a 2011-2012 investigation that rounded up 18 people, including non-party family members.
Wang Qiuping, party secretary of an industrial park in Ningyuan, said he was slapped often and forced to stand and kneel for hours during a detention of 313 days. His deputy Xiao Yifei told the AP he was hooded for more than a month and beaten up by an interrogator who went by the nickname "Tang the Butcher." Xiao provided the AP with a receipt from a local party discipline office showing his sister paid 35,000 yuan, or $5,700, in "violation fees" to secure his release after 208 days. And Fan Qiqing, a contractor, said he was kicked and lashed with a metal whip and wooden plank during his 431-day detention and forced to take hallucinogenic drugs.
A Ningyuan party official who refused to give his name said the investigation involving all three men was carried out in a "civilized manner" and no one was tortured.
In Liling, Zhou believed he could defend himself during questioning. It was not long before he realized he was wrong.
In the first week, Zhou slept barely an hour each night in a hotel because his interrogators stood in a circle and endlessly pushed him back and forth, demanding he confess to accepting 100,000 yuan, or $16,000, in bribes. One investigator protested the tactic as inhumane and slammed his hand on a table in anger, but he was overruled, Zhou says.
Zhou soon sank to the floor like a pile of mud. The interrogators then rolled him around. He was so dizzy that he saw stars.
They moved him to another hotel and did the same for several days. Then one night, they drove Zhou to Qiaotoubao, or "Bridgehead Fort," on the outskirts of the nearby city of Zhuzhou.
Qiaotoubao looks like any austere government building in China, pale green and nondescript, but for the steel bars across its windows. Since 2010, the Zhuzhou government has conducted regular tours there to warn party cadres against corruption. On an official tour in 2011, Zhou himself had noted the audio and video surveillance in each room and concluded that it seemed like "a safe environment" for detainees.
Qiaotoubao is closed to the public, but the government says it is equipped with electronic surveillance, infrared alarms, intercoms and fingerprint door controls. An exhibition center shows documentaries of corrupt officials expressing repentance, and an electronic display urges members to "let official power operate in the sunshine and within the rules."
Yet it was in Qiaotoubao that Zhou says he faced the worst abuse.
He was shuttled between rooms with padded walls to prevent detainees from harming or killing themselves. His questioners forced him to stand or kneel for hours, punched him and dragged him on the floor by his hair, he says. They made him smoke 10 cigarettes at once with his face near lit coals, stinging his eyes and nose.
Again, an interrogator objected. And again, he was ignored.
Zhou's treatment reflects the bind in which the Communist Party in China finds itself.
In a one-party system, it is often party officials who control the courts and police. So the party says it needs its own investigation system, outside the courts and police, to keep its members in check. Yet the very secrecy of this system and the minimal supervision allows abuse.
The party has made efforts to reduce torture by police, close labor camps and curb the use of other informal jails. Its own detention system, however, remains the blackest of black holes.
One reason is a general lack of sympathy for officialdom in China, according to Flora Sapio, a legal expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who has researched the detention system extensively.
"Among the ordinary people in mainland China, you notice a lack of care towards the fate of Communist Party officials, and the public even seems to be in favor of 'shuanggui,'" Sapio says. "These are victims who are screaming, in a sense, yet no one listens to their voice."
Deep inside Qiaotoubao, nobody heard Zhou.
A month after he was taken, he still refused to confess. He knew a confession could mean jail time, the end of his career and disgrace upon his family.
"My daughter cannot have a criminal for a father," he told himself.
The interrogators stepped up the torture, he says. They pressed his face into water in a sink until he thought he was drowning. They whipped his feet until they were bloody, and made him swallow hair from his beard. They slapped his face with shoes and broke four teeth. He was allowed one bowl of rice a day. He fainted several times.
On at least three nights, they pinned him down and force-fed him feces and urine with a spoon. They dubbed the meals "American Western Feast" and "Eight Treasures Porridge."
Most painful of all, they showed him a video of his 22-year-old daughter being detained for 48 hours and interrogated.
His wife, Huang Yimin, visited every official she knew to try and find her husband. She gave one official a package for her husband with a thin wool sweater, milk powder and two traditional mooncakes. None of the items made it to Zhou.
In September, interrogators forced him onto the floor with his back against the wall. Then two of them leaned their weight into his chest while two others forced his legs beyond 180 degrees.
That's when his leg broke. At first, they ignored his pleas to be taken to a hospital, forcing him to stand on his good leg. He knelt down to beg them.
Two weeks later, he had lost all feeling in his leg and started slipping into unconsciousness. Only then, he says, did they let him go to a hospital under the false name of Wang Yan, with the story that he had fallen in the bathroom.
Zhou stayed in the Zhuzhou City No. 1 People's Hospital for just 12 days. Medical records show that upon admission on Sept. 29, his thighs, calves and feet were swollen, his skin red and hot and his left thigh badly bruised.
Further tests revealed fluid in his thighs, kidney stones, an enlarged liver and swollen lymph nodes on his groin. Scans confirmed that his left thigh had broken into several pieces, and a photo of an X-ray shows that doctors inserted three pins to hold the bone in place.
A week after surgery, Zhou's investigators had him discharged, he says. They took him back to Room 109. There he lay immobilized on a thin mattress pad on the floor, his left leg in a splint.
His minders gave him a little more food, but continued to show him the video of his daughter's interrogation. Some days, they tried softer tactics, he says. "Old Zhou, you're already disabled. All you need to do is to admit you accepted 100,000 yuan, we will then try our best to get you medical parole," they told him.
It was three months later, in the winter, when Zhou finally caved. He was worn down by the threats and injuries, and worried about his elderly father's health.
He signed a confession saying he had accepted 40,000 yuan, or $6,600, in bribes and wrote a resignation letter. He was released in January last year and told that prosecutors would investigate his case further.
An amateur video shot on the day of his release by his family shows a visibly thinner Zhou hobbling out of the building on crutches. He was helped on a stretcher and into an ambulance.
A week later, Zhou submitted complaints to party and provincial authorities accusing Jiang Yongqing, the city's then-party secretary, of abusing his power. He also accused his interrogators of torture.
Two months later, the Hunan anti-graft commission announced it was investigating Jiang for "grave violations of discipline." Jiang could not be reached for comment, and a party official said he had been handed over to provincial prosecutors.
Zhou also found out that some of his associates had been secretly detained and questioned about his case, including a real estate developer and a village chief who also claimed they were beaten and forced to stand or kneel for hours. The AP spoke to them and saw their written statements on condition of anonymity, because they were afraid of official retaliation.
Prosecutors eventually decided not to indict Zhou, according to a notice from the Liling City Procuratorate. Zhou still holds his position as director of the land bureau.
In August, he contacted a Hunan lawyer, Cai Ying. He continued sending complaints to prosecutors, police and higher levels of the party's discipline commission.
In October, Cai began posting essays online that Zhou had written about his ordeal. The posts were quickly deleted by censors. But they drew the notice of three other party members, Wang, Xiao and Fan, who also contacted the lawyer.
In November, the party decided that more cases of suspected official corruption should be handed over immediately to the judicial system rather than party investigators, according to Chinese academics who were consulted by the party about the changes. However, experts think the internal decision will have limited impact on the use of secret detention.
A year after Zhou's release, no action has been taken against his interrogators. And despite Zhou's demands, the local anti-graft commission has not released the surveillance video from his time at Qiaotoubao.
Strict censorship rules prevent the Chinese state media from reporting on the case. So Zhou says he is taking the tremendous personal risk of talking to the foreign media.
Since the AP contacted Communist Party officials for comment, Zhou has received two calls warning him not to talk. Wang's wife and his younger brother also got similar calls threatening "consequences" if he talked, and Wang was told he would no longer receive a salary or health insurance.
Zhou still hopes for justice — and to help the party.
"I still believe that the Chinese Communist Party is a good ruling party," Zhou says. "I also believe that not too far in the future, there will be a place in the People's Republic of China in which we can speak freely, a place where my terrible case will receive a fair and just response."
Follow Gillian Wong on Twitter at twitter.com/gillianwong